The theory of relativity tells us that space and time are not what they appear to be. They’re relative, meaning that don’t always function in the same way and they aren’t always experienced in the same way. Time can stand still.
Or can it? This side of eternity, it would seem not. Ever since the universe started with a mammoth explosion some 13.8 billion years ago the clock has been running non-stop, like a merciless meter, moving relentlessly forwards.
However, our faith suggests that time will be different in eternity, so different in fact that we cannot now even imagine how it will be in heaven. As St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Corinthians: Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him. How will time be experienced in heaven? As we’ve just affirmed, that cannot be imagined now.
Or can it? In a wonderful new book on the Resurrection and Eternal Life, Is This All There Is, the renowned, German scripture scholar, Gerhard Lohfink, suggests that we can and sometimes do have an experience of time as it will be experienced in eternity. For Lohfink, we experience this whenever we’re in adoration.
For him, the highest form of prayer is adoration. But what does it mean to “adore” God and why is that the highest form of prayer? Lohfink answers: “In adoration we ask nothing more of God. When I lament before God it is usually my own suffering that is the starting point. Even when I petition God, the occasion is often my own problem. I need something from God. And even when I thank God, unfortunately I am usually thankful for something I have received. But when I adore, I let go of myself and look only to God.”
Admittedly, lament, petition, and thanksgiving are high forms of prayer. An old, classical, and very good, definition of prayer defines prayer as “lifting mind and heart to God”, and what’s in our hearts virtually at all times is some form of lament, petition, or thanksgiving. Moreover, Jesus invites us to ask God for whatever is in our heart at a given moment: “Ask and you will receive.” Lament, petition, and thanksgiving are good forms of prayer; but, in praying them, we’re still focused in some manner on ourselves, on our needs and our joys.
However in adoration we look to God or at some attribute of God (beauty, goodness, truth, or oneness) so strongly that everything else drops away. We stand in pure wonder, pure admiration, ecstatic awe, entirely stripped of our own heartaches, headaches, and idiosyncratic focus. God’s person, beauty, goodness, and truth overwhelm us so as to take our minds off of ourselves and leave us standing outside of ourselves.
And being free of our own selves is the very definition of ecstasy (from the Greek, EK STASIS, to stand outside oneself.) Thus, to be in adoration is to be in ecstasy – though, admittedly, that’s generally not how we imagine ecstasy today. For us, ecstasy is commonly imagined as an earthshaking standing inside of ourselves, idiosyncrasy in its peak expression. But true ecstasy is the opposite. It’s adoration.
Moreover, for Lohfink, not only is adoration the only true form of ecstasy, it’s also a way of being in heaven already right now and of experiencing time as it will be in heaven. Here’s how he puts it: “In the miracle of adoration we are already with God, entirely with God, and the boundary between time and eternity is removed. It is true that we cannot now comprehend that adoring God will be endless bliss. We always want to be doing something. We want to criticize, intervene, change, improve, shape. And rightly so! That is our duty. But in death, when we come to God, that all ceases. Then our existence will be pure astonishment, pure looking, pure praise, pure adoration – and unimaginable happiness. That is why there is also a form of adoration that uses no words. In it I hold out my own life to God, in silence, and with it the whole world, knowing God as Creator, as Lord, as the one to whom belongs all honor and praise. Adoration is the oblation of one’s life to God. Adoration is surrender. Adoration means entrusting oneself entirely to God. As we dwell in adoration, eternity begins – an eternity that does not withdraw from the world but opens to it utterly.”
Time can stand still! And it stands still when we’re in pure admiration, in awe, in wonder, in adoration. In those moments we stand outside of ourselves, in the purest form of love that exists. At that moment too we are in heaven, not having a foretaste of heaven, but actually being in heaven. Eternity will be like that, one moment like a thousand years and a thousand years like one moment.
When we adore, time stands still – and we’re in heaven!