I was taught, in those formative years, in schools run by nuns and Christian brothers. I was an altar boy and also a highly-regular mass-goer, whether anyone pressured me to or not.
Advancing years and logic has dispatched much of my earlier naivety but you can’t do all that stuff without something or other becoming ingrained.
Once such thing is the concept of Eternity.
When I was young, in Mass and bored, my mind would sometimes turn to this idea of Eternity. I think the schools had gone beyond the 'Fire and Brimstone' teaching by the time I got there but they were very good at pushing the idea that, wherever you went after you died, it went on for ever… and ever… and ever.
This didn’t seem so very bad when one was thinking of a cool place with soft drinks, penny chews and matinees all of the time. But it was a rather different proposition when you were threatened with being put in a bad place. As I said, not necessarily a 'Fire and Brimstone' sort of a place, more a dark, cold, lonely place with nobody nice around and nothing nice to do.
So there I would be, regularly, in Mass, contemplating Eternity – an Eternity of not-very-nice-ness. My method was not terribly sophisticated – I would say to myself, “When you die, you might go someplace dark and horrible… and you might stay there forever.” And then, crucially, I would repeat this last thought over and over in my head, “for ever… and ever… and ever… and ever….”
After about 30 seconds of doing so, a strange thing would happen. I would start to feel disorientated, dizzy and sick. At some point in the repetition, instead of just repeating words, my mind would start to grapple with the concept of something which actually has no end. No end at all. It was the oddest thing, I would feel my consciousness almost literally founder at the thought. It would reach out, disbelieving, thrashing to get to an end which must somehow be there. The more I thought, the worse it got.
My childish mind, I discovered, could not seriously engage with the concept of Eternity.
I had forgotten about all this, as I do, until recently. Something must have reminded me, I can’t remember what. I started to wonder how my adult mind would be, playing the same game. I am now a good deal less committed to the practices of my youth and, without delving too deeply into matters of belief, the concept of Eternity should now hold considerably less awe for me.
So I gave it a go…
I was walking along somewhere when I deliberately started that childish thought process all over again:
“When you die, you might go someplace dark and horrible… and you might stay there forever... and ever… and ever… and ever… and…”
And after a time, I needed to find a wall to lean against. The old inability to cope with the concept of Eternity is still in there, doing fine.
I know I’m odd but the question is am I alone?
Would any of you care to engage with the concept of Eternity and tell me how you get on?
It’s not enough to simply think the word ‘Eternity’ and say, “I’m fine with all that.” If you want to know if you can handle it, you have to give yourself a full sixty seconds of thinking along some eternal line, “for ever… and ever…” Can you cope or does your mind too start to reject the idea. Does it demand an end be found somewhere, somehow, down the line.
I’d be interested to know.
And, if there is actually something eternal waiting after we croak, be it good or bad, however am I going to cope?