It is sobering to reflect from time to time on how little we really know. There are a myriad of examples, and I have chosen just a few to illustrate my point. You will be able to think of many others.
Remember that funeral you went to a few months back? Your late friend is now, you think, a Holy Soul. Of course he or she may well be in purgatory, even though you prayed mightily, and had some Masses said. If he isn’t in heaven already, he certainly will be soon.
But now you hit a problem. Time and space are phenomena which enable us to understand what is going on in this world. They have no meaning outside it. There is neither time nor space in purgatory. So what is happening to your friend? I know there is a word – aeviternity– but the dictionary is notably vague as to its meaning. We do not in fact spend any time in any place. And the same question may be asked about the millions of people we may assume are currently in heaven awaiting the Last Day. Despite the disappointment at Yuri Gagarin failing to find heaven on his trip in 1961, there is no such place conforming to human understanding, and no meaning to be attached to the word waiting. For all we know, the soul may move instantaneously (if we know what instantaneously means) from human death to the Last Judgment and integration with our risen bodies.
That might solve the mental mechanisms of the Holy Soul. Down here, we know that our consciousness is mediated through our brains. There, we have to be conscious without our brains unless the risen body is furnished immediately.
Going a little deeper, we consider the question of the risen body of Christ. Accounts after the Resurrection suggest that the normal physical rules of space do not invariably apply. And, while the BVM doesn’t appear that often, she, also, seems to be free of normal restrictions when she does. Do these two glorified bodies currently inhabit a space in any sense which we can understand?
Of course this may be small beer when compared with the Last Day. We may all be hoping to have glorified bodies, but, although we may have our brains back, where will we be living? St Paul speaks of creation groaning for redemption (see Rm 8), and Fr Durrwell, in his classic The Resurrection: A Biblical Study (1960) speaks, as I recall, with vigour about our eventual life in a glorified world. If we receive some of the powers that appear to go with glorification it will certainly be an intriguing experience.
We need to come to terms with the angels, as well. I have a mental picture of angels floating about in long white robes, and given to singing a good deal in choirs. But my picture has come from incidents where angels take on a form which we can recognise – the Annunciation, for instance. But in reality they are unincarnated spirits. It doesn’t make sense even to ask what they might look like.
“For all eternity.” Whether we are thinking about our possible sojourn in heaven or hell, what does eternity mean when there is no such thing as time? We may wonder whether God could keep even the wickedest of us (let alone someone who misses Sunday Mass without excuse) in hell for ever and ever. After an extended torture lasting as long as the time since the Big Bang – about 14 billion years – the sentence will not even have begun.
It may be wise to avoid the question of grace, which most of us, I suspect, solve by an unconscious form of semi-Pelagianism. I just remark on the difficulty of understanding how all our acts of supernatural worth are both free and absolutely the outcome of “efficacious” grace. No, I don’t understand and nor, as far as I can see, does anyone else.
All this, I realise, may read like sceptical scoffing. But I can assure you that this is not so. For example, I accept without hesitation the usual need for purification before our grubby souls make it to heaven. And I am happy to regard the doctrine of purgatory as a narrative suitable for human understanding. And this is so of all the mysteries of the Kingdom. They have to be translated into the crude and simple language of the restricted human mind. Perhaps the ultimate translation lies in Christ’s words to Philip: “He who has seen me has seen the father.” This is the ultimate metaphor of Revelation.
All this is true as far as it goes but it cannot go very far. The problem may arise, and indeed has often arisen, when we think that the simple expression of a doctrine comprises or, in one sense, even approaches the reality to which it refers. We need to remember that even the infallible teachings are only guaranteed to be free from error; they are not guaranteed to be exhaustive truths.
Socrates famously maintained that realising how little one knew was the beginning of knowledge. And it is certainly true that I have become more aware of this with the passing of time. Which leaves me with just two mysteries: why am I, nevertheless, so opinionated, and why does my faith seem to increase as my knowledge decreases? Perhaps the answer is in Paul’s words: “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” But perhaps you can solve some of these mysteries, or have some others which you would like solving.