In Part One of this two-part series, we saw that the great Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel observed that our later years can be regarded as “formative years, rich in possibilities to unlearn the follies of a lifetime.” In that article, we saw how those autumn and winter seasons of our lives can be formative and productive in two ways: (1) as we “unlearn our follies,” accept our lives as our own, and become open to the wisdom we have experienced during our lifetime, and (2) how we might become Elders for future generations as we help them navigate their own lives in a rootless and soulless society. Such a sharing of wisdom is a way we can continue to have a healing and compassionate impact on the future even after we die.
In this article, I want to look at another way our later years can be formative. This way is related to how Heschel understood time and eternity. Heschel was as much a poet and mystic as he was a philosopher. His words tease the mind and expand the heart. They touch the infinite while still being grounded in life. He is one of those rare and inspiring interpreters of transcendence who also appreciated the necessity of God’s immanence. He saw time and eternity related in this way:
Time is the border of eternity. Time is eternity formed into tassels. The moments of our lives are like luxuriant tassels. They are attached to the garment and are made of the same cloth. It is through spiritual living that we realize that the infinite can be confined in a measured time.(Man Is Not Alone, p. 205)
Heschel understood the Sabbath as “the gateway to eternity…It gives us a foretaste of the world to come.” (The Promise of Heschel by Franklin Sherman, p. 65). The Sabbath was to serve as the paradigm for all other days. It was a time to discover who we are created in God’s image, to ground ourselves in holiness and joy, to rest in the embrace of a Loving God, and to know/experience that none of us are here by accident. We were meant to be, and we each are called to discover who we are uniquely meant to be in this world as a part of the community of creation.
Heschel rarely talked about life beyond death. He was too concerned with the realities of earth to spend time worrying about the next dimension. Ten days before Heschel died, he was asked in an interview about his views on an afterlife. He answered, “We believe in an afterlife, but we have no information about it. I can write about it in terms of belief, expectation, and hope.” When asked if he thought the afterlife was less important than life on earth, his response was, “I think it’s God’s business what to do with me after this life. He writes my business what to do with me after death. I’m so busy trying to live a good life (and don’t always succeed), and so have no time to worry about what’s God going to do with me. Who knows what he wants to do with me once I’m in the grave.” Franklin Sherman makes this observation about Heschel’s reference to the “formative years” of old age: “What sense would this make if there were not an expectation that something of the personhood of this elderly person may survive the moment of death?”
My suspicion is that like many sages in religious faith, Heschel didn’t want to encourage a lot of speculation about the next dimension, and he certainly would have rejected any sentimental and sappy “pie in the sky” notions which diminish the importance of this life. He assumed that if we were in touch with the Living God through our “spiritual living,” we would already be in touch with eternity. With such grounding, eternity was already streaming into our lives—the infinite was hidden in the finite. All of creation flows from and is rooted in eternity. We post-moderns, alienated from creation and spiritually bereft and numb, are strangers to the interplay of transcendence and immanence. Too many of us have lost the ability of (or interest in) having an experience of God. And some of those who are religious (especially Christians) become so obsessed with the “afterlife” that they do not embrace fully the life they could have in the time they are given. They, too, miss the vital and indispensable connection between time and eternity, the finite and the infinite. They do not know that the moments of their lives are “luxuriant tassels attached to the garment of eternity.” They cannot detect the burning bush, the intimations of glory, the transcendent beauty which surrounds them. And they do not recognize that their lives, their deeds, and their very being have eternal dimensions.
I do not know what the next dimension will be like. But if there is a next dimension (and I trust there will be based on my Christian faith), I believe there will be both a continuity and a discontinuity. The discontinuity will be a burning away of the foibles, evil, and pretense of our lives. The continuity will be an enhancement of the goodness, beauty, and love we have found and incarnated in this life. Such continuity would naturally benefit from those later “formative years.” Why? Because with the Living God, there is no waste.
[We have a reference to “tassels” in the Gospels. The woman who touched “the hem of the garment” Jesus was wearing (Matthew 9:20-21) was actually touching the tassels which Jews wore on their clothes according to the Jewish law. Such a custom was to remind them of their obedience to the God who brought them out of the land of Egypt. (Numbers 15:36-39. See also Matthew 14:36, 23:5)]