PENANCE AND INDULGENCES:
WHERE DID YESTERDAY GO?
by Dermott J. Mullan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Yesterday was a day that was not much different from any other. I took the children to school, went to work, and eventually came home around dinnertime. Today is another day, with events of its own.
But what happened to all those things I did yesterday? Have they simply vanished into thin air or do they still exist somewhere?
Some people might say: such questions make no sense. The events are over and done with, and (according to these people) they no longer have an “existence” in any meaningful sense of that term.
However, we Catholics believe that we can do things today which have a very real influence on events “in the past”. We believe in going to Confession, where sins that we committed many years ago can be forgiven. The season of Lent reminds us every year that by performing acts of penance, and by gaining indulgences, we can remove some (or all) of the after-effects of past sins.
The purpose of gaining an indulgence is often described in terms of repairing the damage that my sins have caused to God’s world. When I sinned, I did not merely offend God by breaking one of His laws: I also caused something disordered to enter into the world. By analogy, if I throw a brick through someone’s window, I have clearly committed a sin. And if I confess the sin, I may obtain forgiveness, but something clearly remains wrong as a consequence of my action: the window is still broken. Forgiveness does not fix the broken window.
So too, sins have after-effects: they leave behind “broken windows” in the spiritual world that were never part of God’s original plan for the world. The after-effects of certain sins are more obvious than those of others. For example, infidelity in marriage may lead to a separation that will inflict great pain on the children. Or drunken driving may lead to fatal accidents. Other sins have less obvious after-effects. Nevertheless, because of the nature of sin, there are “broken windows” in the spiritual world as a result of every sin that has ever been committed.
The Church’s teaching on penance and indulgences indicates that God has left to the Church a mechanism to mend those spiritual “broken windows” in our past.
But how can anything be mended if it does not exist? As long as we accept the Church’s teaching, I do not see how we can avoid the following conclusion: the events of the past (at least the sinful events) still exist in some sense. Presumably, the non-sinful events also exist “somewhere”.
How can that be?
I suggest that one possible answer can be found by thinking about the kind of world we live in.
To see this, it is important to consider how our views of the world changed as a result of the scientific work of Albert Einstein in the early 20th century. An essential insight of Einstein’s was to realize that space and time are linked in a profound way. So profound is the linkage, in Einstein’s view, that a new word can be coined to describe the medium in which all the events of our lives occur: “space-time”. Physicists have come up with about a dozen tests of “space-time”, and all have been confirmed by experiment. Apparently, Einstein’s insight really does describe our world with great precision.
The “space” part of “space-time” is easy to understand from personal experience. From any point in space, there are three principal directions in which I may move. I can move up or down. I can move left or right. And I can move forward or back. These three options cover all possible moves I wish to make in the entity we call “space”. Because there are three options, scientists say that we live in “three-dimensional (3-D) space”.
In 3-D space, I can choose to move at different speeds in any or all of the principal directions. The speed with which I move is determined by my choice of vehicle: bicycle, car, plane. Or I may choose to sit still and not move at all.
But what about the “time” part of “space-time”? What sort of “motions” can I perform in “time”? From any point in time I do not have a choice to sit still. Time waits for no man, as the saying goes. And as to the direction of motion, I have no freedom to choose: I may move only from past to future. Neither am I free to choose the speed at which I move through time: it flows by everyone in the world at the same rate. (There are some exceptions to this statement for fast-moving subatomic particles, as Einstein showed, but we can ignore them in everyday life.)
Nevertheless, despite this distinctive property about “time”, which makes it appear to be very different from “space”, Einstein suggested that it is worthwhile to consider the world we live in as possessing four dimensions. Three dimensions describe how objects are situated in “space”, while the fourth dimension describes how objects are situated in “time”.
“Space-time” is the word that describes this four-dimensional (4-D) world we live in. According to Einstein, we are all 4-D creatures. While it is easy to see that we occupy a certain region in space, Einstein would say that we also occupy a certain “region” in time.
I suggest that Einstein’s insights can help us to get a handle on the question: “where did yesterday go?”
In order to prove this suggestion, let me back up and talk about an analogy that may be easier to understand. The analogy begins with a whimsical but insightful book called “Flatland”, written in 1884 by Edwin Abbott. The book describes a world in which the inhabitants live their lives entirely within the confines of a flat surface (such as a table-top). The Flatlanders come in shapes of various kinds, but all of the shapes are the familiar figures of plane geometry: triangles, squares, parallelograms, pentagons, hexagons, and circles. Because their world is flat, the Flatlanders can move from left to right, and they can move forward and back. But they cannot move up or down. Why? Because, in contrast to ourselves (who live in 3-D), the Flatlanders live in two dimensions. They have no way to relate to a third dimension.
But then one day, the Flatlanders are visited by a strange object from a place called “Spaceland”. The only way for Flatlanders to “see” the object is to have the object pass through Flatland from above to below. In that case, the Flatlanders “see” a series of “slices” through the Spacelander.
For example, suppose the object from Spaceland happens to be a pencil. What will the Flatlanders “see”? At first, they will “see” nothing at all. Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, a tiny point of graphite will appear in Flatland: this is the writing tip of the “lead” in the pencil. As the pencil moves downwards, the graphite grows into a circle of increasing diameter. Then the Flatlanders will see the graphite circle surrounded by a thin ring of wood: the “slice” of the pencil they are now seeing is passing through the wood which holds the “lead” in place. The ring of wood will become thicker for a while, but will eventually reach a constant size. Then for a long time, there will be no change: each slice through the pencil will look just like the preceding. At this stage, the main body of the pencil is passing through Flatland. After some time, the graphite and wood will be replaced by a circle made of a rubbery material: this is a slice through the eraser. The rubber circle will retain its shape for a while, and then it will disappear when the pencil finally leaves Flatland.
The only way for Flatlanders to appreciate a solid (i.e. 3-D) object is to have that object “pass through” the 2-D world of Flatland. If some means can be found to do that, then the Flatlanders will “experience” the solid as a succession of 2-D slices.
However, it is crucial to note that, even though the Flatlanders can see only one slice at a time, the solid object retains at all times its proper shape in 3-dimensions.
So what does all this have to do with “Where did yesterday go?” Well, let us now go back to Einstein and his four-dimensional view of the world. According to this view, I am really a 4-D creature, but at any instant of time, I live in a 3-D world. The only way for this to happen is to have me “pass through” the 3-D world just as the pencil passed through Flatland. The world I live in sees only a series of successive slices of the “real me”. I first appeared in our world as a tiny point (a single cell) which then grew and took on different layers of complexity. I was born on a certain day, and since that day, I have been growing older. At some point in the future, I will disappear from the 3-D world in the event that we call death.
However, throughout all of this process (which has already spanned several decades of time), by analogy with the pencil that was dropped into Flatland, the “real me” continues to exist as an individual in 4-dimensions. God made me with a well-defined beginning and end in the time dimension, as the Psalmist says: ”my days were limited before one of them existed” (Ps. 139, 16). God is the one who arranges to “hold the pencil as it passes through Flatland”, i.e. He holds me in the palm of His hand (Isa. 49, 12) as I pass through the 3-D world.
Now let us go back to penance and indulgences. By the grace of God, who lives outside of time, I am permitted to perform actions which reach outside the 3-D world, back in the 4th dimension. In this way, God provides me (especially during Lent) with the opportunity to “fix” something I did years or decades ago.
Admittedly, it is hard to imagine what a 4-D creature looks like. But that is what each of us is. And all of the events in which I participated yesterday continue to exist just as the tip of the pencil from Spaceland continued to exist even though the Flatlanders could no longer see it directly. Memory holds the records of some of those events which are part of the “real me”. My personhood, which is the essence of the “real me”, remains intact at all instants of my life.
We will have to wait until after death to appreciate what a 4-D creature looks like. In our present existence, it might be pointless to try to imagine what we actually look like. St Paul suggests that there is no point in attempting to do so, because life after death will be so different from what we now experience, as different as a full-grown flower is from the initial seed (1 Cor. 15, 35-53).
Also under inspiration,
In what sense will we be like God? Well, one of the
perfections of God is that He possesses His being entirely in the present
moment. There is no past or future for God: He is outside of time. (That is why
the offering of Christ at Mass can be truly one and the same sacrifice as on
That is, analogous to the visitor from “Spaceland” in Edwin Abbott’s book, we will enter “Timeland”, and gain a whole new perspective on this world we now live in. We will be able to view the world “from outside” and see it in a different way. From such a perspective, I would be able to see myself as never before. I would “see” all the moments of my life as a single entity. I would no longer be limited to experiencing each moment as a succession of separate slices through the real thing. I would be seeing the “real me” whole and entire, warts and all.
In his book “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Heaven”, Peter Kreeft has an interesting speculation regarding the question “What will we do in heaven?” Kreeft suggests that the first task in heaven will be to understand our earthly life “by Godlight”. By this he means that “we will review our past life with divine understanding and appreciation of every single experience, good and evil”. If Kreeft’s speculation is correct, then it reinforces the point we made above: every single experience in our life is still available “somewhere” for inspection and review. And what is the new perspective from which we will be able to view our life? “By Godlight”, i.e. the way God does, from outside of time.
So, what about those things I did yesterday? Where are they now? The answer is: they still exist as a part of my 4-D self in “Timeland”. Through God’s generous design, as long as I am alive in the 3-D world, I may perform works of penance and gain indulgences to fix up the damage that I unfortunately introduced by my sins into God’s world. But until I perform such penance, the damage remains, at various locations in “the real me”. Thank God for Lent.