Every religious-spiritual tradition of which I know includes within it two distinct ways of life: the social and religious traditions, publicly celebrated; and its hidden or mystical life, often practiced by only a few, and in solitude. The outward, religious side of Catholicism is rich, having developed over some 20 centuries, not counting our roots in Jewish ritual, practices, and beliefs, nor in those of the Hellenistic world which were incorporated Into Catholic practice and belief in the early centuries. The liturgies of Holy Week are not only the high point of the Church year, but in my opinion, the most meaningful and beautiful services that Christianity has to offer. They center decisively on the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ—as does every Eucharistic celebration, but often in more muted tones, especially if drowned out by the kind of loud and busy, often social-activist services so common in our country today.
The mystical life of the Church is essentially one with mysticism in other forms, because it is utterly simple: the individual human being seeks internal growth in holiness (the purification of spirit) in order to become one with that which we by tradition call “God.” This process is the growth in love and virtues, even to the point in which one seeks to dissolve his or her own ego or self into divine Presence. St. Paul said it well: “Now I live, yet not I [ego], but Christ lives in me.” He kept renouncing himself, his own will, in order to allow the Risen Christ to live in him and through him. That is the pattern of the mystical life. It is the goal of our Catholic faith, at least as taught by the saints of the Church, but unfortunately, has often been neglected for more external, ritualistic religion, or for social “activism” of one kind or another. Anything is easier than dissolving one’s ego into the abyss of divine love.
If one lives only as a practicing Catholic in the external forms, and does not develop an internal spiritual life, one will not understand the meaning of eternal life. For outwardly religious Catholics, eternal life is usually misunderstood as afterlife, as something that happens to one after one dies. Hence, the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection (Easter) for example, is thought to be about what happens to people when they die. Even Christ’s Resurrection is externalized into stories and beliefs that sound more like a resuscitated corpse—more like Lazarus—than the experience of the Risen Christ in the psyches (consciousness) of selected men and women. In this sense, Catholic religious belief is not essentially different from that of ancient Egyptians, or Greeks, who had stories about life in the “underworld,” and how to escape the “lake of fire” and get to “paradise” or “heaven” in some way. For many people, including for some of our faithful Catholics, it seems that they believe that “getting to heaven” is the goal of life, and what “religion” has to offer. One theological mind called this kind of religion “fire insurance.”
Eternal life is not essentially “afterlife,” nor is it a form of speculation on some kind of futuristic existence beyond death. The term “eternal life” was coined by the Greek philosopher Plato, and it would have had some currency by the time of Christ. It means true life, a life that is true because one practices dying to self, especially in yielding up one’s opinions for truth, and one’s selfish passions for the rule of reason in the soul and in one’s actions. Eternal life is a life of openness to the divine Presence, that “eternalizes” or “immortalizes” the soul from within. At the end of his Ethics, Aristotle notes that the purpose of genuine life is “immortalizing,” and it comes from attunement to the divine mind. This is experientially equivalent to what the Apostle Paul means by “Christ lives in me.” Life in union with God is eternal life, here and now, and it is true life. “This is eternal life: to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You sent,” using the language of St. John’s Gospel. God’s Life, beyond space-time, is eternal, forever.