“Eternity eludes us.”  (Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog)

Except when it doesn’t.

I confess I find this observation by Muriel Barbery on the subject of eternity both troubling and moving. How often eternity does elude us. Almost every moment of every day. And it is not difficult to notice the reasons for this: our own anxieties or preoccupations overwhelm us, crowd out our capacity for simple awareness of the gift of our own existence and the existence of everything. So, we have to allow ourselves to be surprised, astonished, by all that is unfolding before us. Which, occasionally, we do.

Insect

A few weeks ago, this little insect paused for a brief moment near the window above our kitchen sink. The sharp morning light shone down on and through this creature. Translucent. Radiant. Everyone came over to behold this marvelous sight for a brief moment.

And then it was over.

I remember the first time I learned of the meaning of the word “Kairos”—the fullness of time. It is used often in the New Testament to refer to the altered sense of oneself and the world that can arise through a recognition that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” that it is unfolding before our very eyes. That idea, that heaven (or eternity) is not simply a far off place but is breaking into our lives at every moment, if we have eyes to see, feels to me like one of the great truths of existence. Can this be proven? No. At least not through rationale argument. I think it is something that has to be arrived at through intuition, or that strange ‘half-awareness’ that we sometimes associate with dreaming. You can seek it out, but in the end it must arrive as a kind of surprise. Which is why it so often evokes in us a sense of wonder and awe.

Part of what I really like about The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the way the author (and her characters) attend to the question of eternity. Certainly no particular religious meaning is given to it. But contrary to much of our skeptical age, they entertain the possibility that it exists and can perhaps be known and experienced. I love her account, for example, of Levin scything the grass (a scene from Anna Karenina)—Levin who in the novel is so often consumed by his cares. Here is what she says: “A welcome breeze suddenly caresses his back. A summer rain. Gradually, his movements are freed from the shackles of his will, and he goes into a light trance which gives his gestures the perfection of conscious, automatic motion, without thought or calculation, and the scythe seems to move of its own accord. Levin delights in the forgetfulness that movement brings, where the pleasure of doing is marvelously foreign to the striving of the will.” (123)

And then Renee makes a connection between Levin and the writing that she does: “What other reason might I have for writing this—the ridiculous journal of an aging concierge—if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it?  . . . I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know. This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me.”

“The joy of frank astonishment.” I love that. And it seems to me to touch into the mysterious question of how or whether we can become conscious of living in eternity. It has something to do, I think, with self-forgetfulness, at least forgetfulness of the limited ego-self (“In this way, in the full proof and texture of my self, I accede to a self-forgetfulness that borders on ecstasy, to savor the blissful calm of my watching consciousness”). Something larger and more capacious is always trying to come to birth within us, a Self capable of drinking in eternity.

On this, the day of my birth, I pause to reflect on this mystery.

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