Chapter 98

  1. Time And Eternity

“Why shrinks the soul

Back on herself, and startles at destruction?

‘T is the divinity that stirs within us;

‘T is heaven itself that points out an hereafter,

And intimates eternity to man.

Eternity, thou pleasing, dreadful thought!

Thro’ what variety of untried being,

Thro’ what new scenes and changes must we pass?

The wide, the unbounded prospect lies before me;

But shadows, clouds, and darkness rest upon it.”

— Addison.

Alas! what is man? Whether he be deprived of that light which is from on high, or whether he discards it, he is a frail and trembling creature, standing on time, that bleak and narrow isthmus between two eternities; he sees nothing but impenetrable darkness on the one hand, and doubt, distrust, and conjecture still more perplexing on the other. Most gladly would he take an observation as to whence he has come, or whither he is going; alas! he has not the means; his telescope is too dim, his compass too wavering, his plummet too short; nor is that little spot, his present state, one whit more intelligible, since it may prove a quicksand that may sink in a moment from his feet. It can afford him no certain reckonings as to that immeasurable ocean on which he must soon spread his sail—an awful expedition, from which the mind shrinks from contemplating. Nor is the gloom relieved by the outfit in which the voyage must be undertaken. The bark is a coffin, the destination is doubt, and the helmsman is death. Faith alone can see the star which is to guide him to a better land.

The hour-glass is truly emblematical of the world. As its sands run out at the termination of a given period, so it shows that all things must have an end. It shows that man may devise—may even execute—but that erelong time, that restless destroyer, comes, and mows all before him, and leaves naught but a wreck, a barren waste behind him. Surely all will give credence to this who watch the daily dying of cherished hopes, of delightful anticipations. The flame burns brightly at first, but it soon fluctuates, and finally dies without restriction.

We must, some time or other, enter on the last year of our life; fifty or one hundred years may yet come, and the procession may seem interminable, but the closing year of our life must come. There are many years memorable in history, as in them died men of renown; but the year of our death will be more memorable to us than any. Eighteen hundred and fifteen was a memorable year, for in that Waterloo was fought; but there will be a more memorable year for us—the year in which we fight the battle with the last enemy. That year will open with the usual New-year’s congratulations; it will rejoice in the same orchard blossoming, and the sweet influences of Spring. It will witness the golden glory of the harvest, and the merry-makings of Christmas. And yet to us it will be vastly different, from the fact that it will be our closing year. The Spring grass may be broken by the spade to let us down to our resting-place; or, while the Summer grain is falling to the sickle, we may be harvested for another world; or, while the Autumnal leaves are flying in the November gale, we may fade and fall; or, the driving sleet may cut the faces of the black-tasseled horses that take us on our last ride. But it will be the year in which our body and soul part—the year in which, for us, time ends and eternity begins. All other years fade away as nothing. The year in which we were born, the year in which we began business, the year in which our father died, are all of them of less importance to us than the year of our death.

It is only when on the border of eternity that the fleeting period of life is comprehended. Human life, what is it? It is vapor gilded by a sunbeam—the reflection of heaven in the waters of the earth. In youth the other world seems a great way off, but later we feel and realize that it is close at hand. We come, like the ocean wave, to the shore, but scarcely strike, the strand before we roll back into forgetfulness, whence we came.

In the light of eternity, how vain and foolish appear the contentions and strifes of mankind! Addison most beautifully expresses this thought in these lines: “When I look upon the tombs of the great every emotion of envy dies; when I read the epitaph of the beautiful every inordinate desire forsakes me; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tombs of the parents themselves I reflect how vain it is to grieve for those we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying beside those who deposed them, when I see rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men who divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the frivolous competitions, factions, and debates of mankind.”

, In, pager

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