Somewhere in our childhood, surely, we encountered the image of a trick rider, who managed to stand on the backs of two racing ponies — a foot on each animal (and if you missed this phenomenon, I know you can imagine the feat). The horses are first trained to run in tandem, and then the rider exercises perfect balance (and fortitude!) to remain upright as they circle a ring, or even go through an obstacle course.
That image came to mind as an illustration of the Christian call to perfection. The one pony we might call Tempus, for he represents the daily work of applying the necessary virtues to life’s constant challenges. This usually requires a combination of patience, cheerfulness, and forbearance, grounded in charity and expressed through a lens of piety and gratitude. Sometimes more is needed — perhaps more wisdom, more kindness, more trust, or more humility — and yet the sacramental life to which we are called provides all the graces required to live the Christian life. Such is the task of Holy Mother Church, to hold the hands of her children as they struggle through this vale of tears.
The other pony we might call Eternity and the name implies the unchanging truths connected to our faith: that God is three in one, the Alpha and Omega, and the very ground of our being; He Who set the stars in motion has made us in love for Himself, and this proving ground in time will pass away. Ultimately, we are made for communion with Him, which, although beyond our comprehension, is foreshadowed in myriad ways here on earth. Jesus, both Savior and Exemplar, promises that pursuing the narrow path of charity and sacrifice is eminently worthwhile, and St. Paul (echoing Isaiah) writes: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have they entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him” (1Cor 2:9, cf. Isaiah 64:3).
But how do we maintain a healthy balance? How do we love those around us with the proper intensity and gift of self if this world is passing? And how do we focus on the timeless truths without neglecting the mundane details and people in such need of our attention? This has been one of the most important questions in all religions, and is beautifully answered by our faith — for the singularity of Catholicism is its reliance on the Incarnation to illustrate the relation between Creator and creation, materiality and spirituality, and ultimately time and eternity.
As we hear in the Mass, God devised a plan through which we may “come to share in the divinity of Christ Who humbled Himself to share in our humanity” (Roman Missal). In the words of the Athanasian Creed: “Although He is God and human, yet Christ is not two, but one. He is one, however, not by His divinity being turned into flesh, but by God’s taking humanity to Himself.” While we can never fully unpack that idea, we have before us a lifetime of embracing that incarnate truth — hour by hour, day after day. We love others as icons of God, attend properly to the materials entrusted to us in this fleeting world, and work to order affairs for the good, while understanding that it is for God ultimately to direct humanity to its proper end.
The two pressing temptations are to become too absorbed in the finite affairs and material concerns, or to be so otherworldly that we neglect what is right in front of us. The balance has challenged every generation, demanding both a firm prayer regimen and a sense of humor to get it right. Loving each person for God’s sake, and seeing the eternal backdrop to our daily slog is like the trick rider with reins in hand and ponies beneath the boots.
In all seriousness, straddling two animals would be a madcap enterprise, but if we discipline ourselves to stand upright and keep our weight perfectly balanced between heaven and earth, we may eventually look down to see a single animal beneath us. The landscape may be crashing in, but with a truly incarnational view, we will let Tempus fugit go as he will, knowing full well that he bears Eternity in every step — with God’s own path beneath him. Thus all will be well if we simply keep our balance and remember the destination.
Anchor columnist Genevieve Kineke is the author of “The Authentic Catholic Woman.” She blogs at feminine-genius. typepad.com.