The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension—above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.st. athanasius1
While many modern thinkers have difficulties with Catholic and Christian faith because of the concept of eternal damnation, I've always thought salvation equally problematic because of its everlastingness. As a child I remember clearly being both puzzled and frightened when trying to think of the prospect of living forever, even with the hope of being in God's presence. Nor am I alone. A 2016 article at The Atlantic discusses apeirophobia, not officially recognized by any edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders—but certainly recognized by a large number of people throughout history, not limited to the author of the article, those on Facebook, and those answering surveys on Reddit. The article cites Blaise Pascal's record in the Pensées of his own terror at the thought of a seemingly [End Page 5] infinite space and an everlasting time: "When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then."2
Though the Atlantic article toys with a number of psychological explanations for this fear of eternity, it doesn't really come to any conclusions about the fear other than that for the author, as for many adults, the solution to the problem seems to be not thinking about it. Of course the difficulty with this "solution" is that if the human being was made in the image of God and meant to live on forever in a resurrected state, ignorance in this case may be insufficient for bliss in the long—meaning everlasting—term. God has not only made "everything beautiful in its time," the Preacher tells us in Ecclesiastes, but he has also "put eternity in man's mind" (3:11). Eternity, that vast abyss of time that seems to the apeirophobic—let us say "human being"—so terrifying, is terrifying not merely because it is hard to grasp, but also because it is part of the nature of God.
As a boy I remember vividly the Pascalian night terrors I had of time and space simultaneously growing more vast and distant and yet somehow crushing in on me at the same time. It was only later that I came to associate this experience with God. In Jean Daniélou's marvelous little book God's Life in Us, the twentieth-century Jesuit wrote of God's omnipresence throughout the universe he created, a presence called fittingly "immensity."3 This immensity of God's presence comes to us as a mystery, meaning not "that there is something unintelligible in God. On the contrary, it is because of his fullness that we find it impossible to support him."4
We come gradually to the ability to support the mysterious immensity of God's presence by a process of purification of soul that is itself the work of God. Daniélou cites St. Irenaeus's notion that the [End Page 6] process of growing into a capacity for God is a trinitarian work in which the Spirit takes hold of us and gives us to the Son, who then presents us to the Father. Yet allowing ourselves to be taken hold of and cast into the immensity of divine life is a difficult process. Our task in prayer is to "sink" like a stone
into the abyss which is in us and which is God's abode. The great mistake we make in our spiritual lives is to tarry at these intermediary zones instead of going straight to God. We let ourselves be infiltrated by regrets, plans, desires, care. Even if we move forward, it...