The following is one of those passages from Abraham Joshua Heschel—extraordinarily common in his writing—that is fascinating when considered as philosophy, penetrating when heard as theology, and quite moving and beautiful when simply read as poetry.
Common to all men who pray is the certainty that prayer is an act which makes the heart audible to God. Who would pour his most precious hopes into an abyss? […]
The passage of hours, almost unnoticeable, but leaving behind the feeling of loss or omission, is either an invitation to despair or a ladder to eternity. This little time in our hands melts away ere it can be formed. Before our eyes man and maid, spring and splendor, slide into oblivion. However, there are hours that perish and hours that join the everlasting. Prayer is a crucible in which time is cast in the likeness of the eternal. Man hands over his time to God in the secrecy of single words. When anointed by prayer, his thoughts and deeds do not sink into nothingness, but merge into the endless knowledge of an all-embracing God.
Perhaps it’s something to do with aging, but I happen to be increasingly preoccupied with questions of time. Not so much the lack of it (which is very obvious and about which I can do nothing) but the nature of it, and in particular the difference between our time and God’s. It doesn’t matter that this is unknowable; if we ceased wondering about things which are unknowable I suppose that we would be very bored and very boring indeed. But you wonder—and I know that all humans, atheist, agnostic and devout, wonder this—why most seconds, minutes and moments just tick away like a great impersonal and unstoppable clock, and why there are other moments in our lives which may be incredibly brief on the clock but the duration and weight of which seem almost boundless to our experience. These moments can come in a wide variety of contexts, but I think they are often those moments in which we involuntarily shed tears, or at least are very deeply moved by something inexpressible. I think that we are certain, in such a moment, that what is happening matters a great deal, and that it will not simply pass on into the void but will somehow be remembered, and not only by ourselves. Are we wrong, or are we in such moments receiving a tiny glimpse of the eternal?
Tangentially, I had a memorable dream recently, totally unlike any other I’d ever had. It was so strange that it overcomes my sense that it is self-indulgent to write about such things. I dreamed that I had died. That’s not unprecedented: I know I’ve gotten knocked off in previous dreams, and usually awoken with a start. I believe this is not uncommon. (Perhaps it’s even the “awaking” that leads the brain to “kill” you in the dream. The chicken or the egg?)
In this dream, however, I do not recall any particular circumstance that was causing my death. What I remember instead was my feeling at the moment of death, and a terrible vision of total nothingness that I saw (to the extent that it is possible to see nothingness, which I have found that it isn’t). It was not a sense of being deposited, conscious, into a void, which would be more like a nightmare of hell. It was just a sense of “Oh!” as I was dropping off the threshold of life and seeing that what lay beyond was exactly nothing. It evoked a fleeting but painfully deep sense of regret that all was being lost: every thought, feeling and memory, every chance to do anything else, ever, and any chance to correct those things I should not have done. I wasn’t going to hell; my consciousness was simply disappearing with total finality. I would not suffer for all eternity, but that moment of knowing that everything was completely lost was unspeakably awful. (Then, I awoke.)
I don’t usually remember dreams for very long, and I don’t worry about them. But this is one of those very rare ones I don’t think I will easily forget. You cannot help but wonder why you saw such a thing. It is not actually what I believe lies in store for me or indeed for anyone. I suppose it never occurred to me how horrible that could be at the final moment. How could you know how such a thing feels, after all, unless you experience it? In a way, in this strange dream, I did.
I could merely respond, with Ebenezer Scrooge, that “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.” Or more plausibly the combination of antihistamines I had ingested. But I’ll take the occurrence of the dream as a strange gift, and a salutary warning of some kind, and worthy of reflection.
Certain kinds of psychologists, amateur and otherwise, could have a field day with everything I’ve written above, I have no doubt. It’s possible to reduce everything to the clinical and the chemical, but it’s my belief that if that’s your goal, you may as well not even ask any big questions in the first place.
Since this odd series of thoughts began with Heschel writing about prayer, it can close with a prayer Heschel would have known well.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.