[Time past]

Hi Donagh, 

…. I’d like to ask you as a fellow Christian who has no doubt wrestled with these questions, does Zen allow for the resurrection of the historical reality of those who have lived, including Jesus. I know the Christ is ever present, but can you have faith that this Christ consciousness that we experience as our daily consciousness transcends the historical present moment and includes a Consciousness of the past. Can there be a Christ that is not consciousness of the historical experience of Jesus, just as our own sense of self includes our past. 
This is ultimately a question of what we mean by God. Saint Paul says 'For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known'. It seems to me Paul is saying, our experience of life now (a limited finite experience, that doesn't even include my neighbour’s experience of herself) is a sharing in God's experience of Himself, and after death and resurrection, we will know ourselves as God knowing Himself, just as we know our childhood as one dimension of who we are. Or are we saying, that our death is the end of God's experience of Herself as us and we are forgotten with history as Consciousness is consciousness of the historical present moment only. I understand no one knows (Panikkar left out the final chapter of his Rhythm of Being for this reason), still it is so central to our Christian understanding and our own experience of ourselves that the past is resurrected into the fullness of the now which includes an awareness of the past that it would seem like not such good news after all if all we were to say was God is all and all, but just doesn't know it. Again these words like God are symbolic, still surely our hope fulfils what we are rather than leave us diminished. I'm not saying the I of God is someone else just that my experience of reality doesn't limit God's. Does Zen allow for the resurrection of our life experiences and not just our life. 

Peace of Christ



Dear Tony,

This may be the hardest question of all, but also the most worthwhile.  I have no confidence that I can make a satisfactory response to it, but I can call a couple of witnesses – one in particular, Meister Eckhart. 

The first general point I would like to make is about the translation of the Greek word ‘aionios’.  Though it means ‘eternal’, ‘without beginning or end’, it is often translated, even in the Liturgy, as ‘everlasting’.  This conveys the impression that eternal life is just the endless prolongation of our historical existence.  This would not be something to long for; it would not be a blessing but an unbearable affliction.  If you remember, Swift took up this theme in Gulliver’s Travels.  On one of the islands visited by Gulliver some of the inhabitants had the dubious gift of everlasting life.  The problem was that they aged just like everyone else.  By the time they reached a hundred they were sick and lonely.  At two hundred years their life was pure pain, and from then they were a curse on the earth.  Swift borrowed his image from an ancient myth about Eos (Aurora), the goddess of dawn, who fell in love with a mortal youth and begged Zeus to give him the gift of everlasting life.  After some years, noticing that he was ageing, she realised her mistake: she should not have asked for everlasting life, but for eternal life. 

Eternity is not a long time.  The mediaevals said it was ‘all at once’ – tota simul.  It seems to be about depth rather than length.  But can that ‘tota simul’ somehow ‘contain’ our historical time?  How could time still be time in that ‘compressed’ state?  If it is not flowing, is it still time? 

Time to hand you over to Meister Eckhart!  Here are three short passages chosen from among many.  He lived with these mysteries and conundrums, so his writing is almost like a series of Zen koans. 

  • “The Now in which God made the first human being, and the Now in which the last human shall cease to be, and the Now in which I speak: all are the same in God and there is but one Now.”
  • “God creates the world and all things in one present now, and the time that passed away a thousand years ago is now as present and as near to God as this very instant.”
  • “If I take a moment of time, it is neither today nor yesterday.  But if I take Now, it includes all time. The now in which God made the world is as close to this time as the now in which I am just speaking, and the last day is as close to this now as the day that was yesterday.”


He speaks about ‘God’s eternal Now’, or ‘God’s eternal day’.  That Now is equally present to each of the ‘nows’ of our historical time.  But we too, to the extent that we are one with God in spirit, are equally present to every moment of our past, not as somehow ‘compressed’ but as it really was.  As it really was?  Perhaps yes and no: when we were living through that past moment we may well have glossed over it, or slept through it, or failed to see it as being important in any way.  But in the ‘now’ in which we are one with God, we are profoundly present to that past moment. 

This takes some getting-used-to!  I don’t know if Nietzsche ever read Eckhart; but if he had read him, he would have had a field-day.  The very idea of God, Nietzsche said, swallows up time.  ‘Would time be gone and all that is transitory only a lie?’  Sartre had a similar problem about ‘the chronological order shot to pieces.’  But these two lifelong atheists, one celebrating time and the other gagging at it, would not have sat contemplatively with these questions as Eckhart did.  As with a Zen koan, we have to sit with the question of time and eternity until we experience the limits of our rationality – and then stay sitting, without judging, without speculating, without concluding, without talking or even thinking.  This is the point of entry.  Everything else is preparatory to it. 

Many of the theologians around us are still highly rationalistic, in the sense that they don’t take this contemplative silence to be the crucial moment of truth.  Instead they go for ‘ratio’ – the mediaevals’ name for the discursive mind, busy as it always is with analysing, deducing, comparing, affirming, denying, distinguishing, concluding… or never concluding, but never giving up trying!  This is the unacknowledged legacy of Kant, who made contemplation impossible in principle – because ‘it is not work’.  ‘Reason,’ he wrote, ‘acquires its possessions through work.’  He admired Aristotle rather than Plato, because ‘the philosophy of Aristotle is work.’  The other function of the mind, known to the mediaevals as ‘intellectus’, he dismissed out of hand.  That is the passive, receptive, intuitive, contemplative function of the mind.  Eckhart had a highly competent ratio, but his real gift was intellectus.  I think your question about time and eternity would receive more satisfaction from an Eckhartian rather than a Kantian mind. 

I haven't mentioned the sacraments.   In ‘sacramental time’ Christians see the past as ‘re-enacted’ in the present.  They insist that the Eucharist is more than just a memory or a commemoration of the past.  It is the same act as Calvary.  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb 13:8).  The seven sacraments in Catholic theology are not isolated acts; they are just the highest points – like mountain peaks – of a landscape that is itself sacramental.  Since you mentioned my books, I'm attaching a section of one of them that has some bearing on this. 

We both mentioned Zen.  A couple of Zen masters – one a Buddhist and the other a Christian – have said to me that Zen is not Buddhism.  It is a practice rather than a belief system.  It arose within Buddhism, of course, but it is detachable.  I think I might have had trouble seeing the congruity between Zen and Catholic faith if it wasn’t for Meister Eckhart.  I see him as a kind of bridge between the two.  In fact I first discovered him in an anthology of Zen texts! 

Sorry for going on so long, Tony.  I hope I haven't confused the issue too much!  For this month’s ‘Jacob’s Well’ page I picked a passage that is related to your question. 

God bless,


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