“Turn us again, O God of hosts, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.” -- Psalm 80:7
Mourning the loss of his friend, Augustine lamented, “For in whichever direction the soul of man turns, unless it turns to you, it is transfixed on things that cause pain. They are born and die.”
Death is the starkest and most painful reminder that nothing in this world is permanent. Not that we should need a reminder. Everything -- our minds, our bodies, our relationships, our physical surroundings, the entire universe -- is in a constant state of change. All is in flux.
We are born into this state and quickly learn to accept it, even embrace it. In a contingent universe, change is essential. We are dependent on it not only for our development but for our very survival. It is integral to our temporal existence. Nonetheless, it carries powerful emotions, as anyone who has watched his child grow or witnessed the death of a loved one can well attest.
Change may be the most natural thing but it strangely feels like the most unnatural. We are often surprised by it, caught unaware that something we expected or hoped to be around forever has been lost. Such sentiment seems illogical, for it contradicts everything we know about the world around us.
Scripture addresses this great contradiction by explaining that God has appointed to everything a season but has also planted eternity in our hearts. Despite being flawed and finite creatures surrounded by a world in decay, we have an innate sense of the infinite that cannot be eradicated.
It is an irony that makes perfect sense. A contingent universe must have an extrinsic cause. There is no logical alternative. The material world did not (and cannot) create itself. As dependent beings that are part of the material world, we are reliant upon an eternal and unchanging God for our every breath. Deep down we understand this truth and long for the permanence of the creator.
In his anguish over the death of his friend, Augustine reflects on the world that is passing away, “Let my soul praise you by means of these transient things, O God, creator of all things, but let it not become fixed and glued on to them with its love of physical senses. They go where they are going, into unbeing, and rend the soul with perilous longings, for she wishes to be, and loves to rest in the things she loves. In them, however, there is no resting place, for they are impermanent. Who can hold on to them, even when they are at hand?”
The answer, of course, is no one. None of us can hold on to impermanent things. They are gifts for a season, flowers that wither away. When they pass they elicit longings within us that can only be satisfied by the one who does not pass, the one who is the same yesterday and today and forever and who knows our innermost being. As Augustine famously wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” In this rest, there is “neither past nor future, but only being, since it is eternal.”