National Catholic Register

Commentary

Indulgences: Intrusions From Another Dimension

BY Dermott Mullan

June 29-July 5, 2003 Issue | Posted 6/29/03 at 2:00 PM

 

What happened to the things I did yesterday? Have they simply vanished, or do they still exist?

Some might say such questions are nonsense. However, we Catholics believe that things we do today can affect events “in the past.” In confession, old sins can be forgiven and indulgences can remove the after-effects of past sins.

Sins have after-effects: They leave behind “broken windows” in the spiritual world. The Church's teaching on penance and indulgences indicates that God provides a mechanism to mend those spiritual “broken windows” in our past.

But how can anything be mended if it does not exist?

Einstein Time

I suggest science might provide a helpful answer.

Einstein considered space and time as linked in such a profound way that a new word can be coined to describe the medium in which all the events of our lives occur: space-time. Physicists have found Einstein's suggestion fits our world with phenomenal precision.

The “space” part of space-time is easily understood. From any point in space, I have three options for moving: left-right, forward-back and up-down. Because these cover all possible motions, scientists say we live in three-dimensional (3-D) space.

Now what about the “time” part of space-time? What sort of motions can I perform in time? I do not have a choice to sit still: I must move in one direction only, from past to future, and that's it.

Nevertheless, despite this distinctive property about time, Einstein suggested we live in four dimensions. Three dimensions describe how objects move in space, while the fourth dimension describes how objects move in time.

Space-time describes this fourdimensional (4-D) world we live in. Einstein's insight was that we are all 4- D creatures, occupying not only a certain region in space but also a certain region in time.

This helps us to address the question, where did yesterday go?

To demonstrate this concept, let me refer to a whimsical but insightful book called Flatland. This book, written in 1884 by Edwin Abbott, describes a world where people live entirely within the confines of a flat surface (such as a table top). The Flatlanders can move left-right and forward- back. But they cannot move updown. 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 a strange object arrives 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. The Flatlanders experience the stranger as a succession of 2-D slices through the object.

For example, suppose the object from Spaceland happens to be a pencil. What will the Flatlanders see? At first, a tiny point of graphite will suddenly appear in Flatland — this is the writing tip of the pencil. As the pencil moves downward, the Flatlanders will see the graphite circle eventually surrounded by a thin ring of wood — the “slice” of the pencil they now see is passing through the wood, which holds the lead in place. 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 it somehow pass through the 2-D world of Flatland. If this happens, the Flatlanders will experience the 3-D object as a succession of 2-D slices.

However, even though the Flatlanders can see only one slice at a time, it is crucial to realize the pencil retains at all times its “real” shape in three dimensions.

So what does all this have to do with “Where did yesterday go?” Well, according to Einstein, the “real me” is a 4-D creature “passing through” the 3-D world just as the 3-D pencil passed through 2-D Flatland. The 3-D world sees only a succession of 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. At the point we call death, I will disappear from the 3-D world.

However, throughout all of this process, by analogy with the pencil in Flatland, the real me continues to exist as a 4-D individual in Timeland. God gave me a well-defined beginning and end in the time dimension: “My days were limited before one of them existed” (Psalm 139:16). And God arranges the process of my passing through the 3-D world: He holds me in the palm of his hand (Isaiah 49:12).

Time Out

Now let us go back to penance and indulgences. By the grace of God, who lives outside of time, I am permitted today to perform actions that reach outside the 3-D world back into the fourth dimension. In this way, God allows me to “fix” wrongs I did years 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 things I did yesterday still exist, just as the pencil from Spaceland continued to exist even after the Flatlanders could no longer see it.

In his book Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, Peter Kreeft asks, “What will we do in heaven?” He suggests we will review our earthly life by “Godlight,” i.e. from God's perspective: “We will review our past life with divine understanding and appreciation of every single experience, good and evil.” This again suggests that every single experience in our life is still available “somewhere” for inspection.

St. John writes, “We are God's children now; what we shall later be has not yet come to light. We know that when it does come to light, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). In what sense will we be like God? Well, 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 Calvary.)

If I could see myself from God's viewpoint, I would see myself as never before, with all the moments of my life in a single entity.

So, where are all those things I did yesterday? The answer is: They still exist as a part of the real me in 4-D Timeland. Through God's generous design, as long as I am in this 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.

Dermott Mullan writes from Elkton, Maryland.