The Final Countdown

We like to have countdowns to special dates: Christmas, New Year's, etc. But we can't have a countdown to the date of our death.

For any readers who are experiencing a vague void inside and do not know why, I am happy to announce that there are now less than 350 shopping days until Christmas 2023. To be more precise, a website tells me, as I write these words, that there are 347 days, 12 hours, and 11 minutes remaining. I thought readers would be glad to know that, in case they were feeling a disquiet now that we’re out of the countdown season of December. 

People like to count down. The ball dropped in Times Square only a few weeks ago. (Growing up in Minnesota, we were always happy that we could watch this from Central Standard Time and then go to bed at 11:01.) You can put a Countdown App on your phone to keep track of how many days you are from spring break, or someone’s birthday, or the release of a new movie. Or you can go to a website called “days.to” and count down to the next full moon, Groundhog Day, Shrove Tuesday, or Mother’s Day in the U.K.

People like to count down. And people like to count up. 

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This year, I counted up 70 years since my birth date. Just weeks ago, we counted up two thousand and twenty-three years since Christ reset the historical odometer to zero. In July, we will count up 247 years since the Declaration of Independence was signed. When I was a child, McDonald’s used to count up how many hamburgers they’ve sold; but when it became inconvenient to change the golden arches so often, they began to just say “billions and billions.”

My reason for running through these examples is to make two simple observations. First, counting either up or down requires a marker—some kind of stake in the ground. A race begins from one point, and it ends at another point. To count up how many meters you have run, and to count down how many more meters remain, you must have a starting line and a finish tape.

My second observation is that one marker is easier to determine than the other. A very simple example will suffice: I can easily count up from my birth date in 1952, but I cannot count down to my death date because I don’t know when that will be.

Countdowns require a date that has either been agreed upon, or arbitrarily chosen, or guessed at. I can start the ticker on the Countdown App for January 1, 2024, a date agreed to start a new year; I can start the countdown for spring break, a date chosen by the registrar; and I can start the countdown for when the Farmer’s Almanac guesses a spring thaw will arrive. 

But I cannot start a countdown to the day I die, or the year a company will go out of business, or the decade when global power shifts, or the century an empire ends. As I used to point out to my students, the only people who can refer to the “Middle Ages” are the people living after them: you can’t call these centuries “middle” while you’re inside them. 

I suppose the Romans might have wished they could have set the year 410 on their phone app to know when the sack of Rome was coming. I suppose Americans might wish they could know the date for the end of their republic. It came for the Romans; it will come for us. 

When Paul of Thebes (who lived as a hermit in the desert from age 20 to age 113) met his visitor Anthony the Great, he asked “Tell me, I pray you, how fares the human race? Are new homes springing up in the ancient cities? What government directs the world?” (Jerome’s Life of St. Paul). How’s it going? Who is in charge these days? Persia fell to Greece, Greece fell to Rome, has Rome fallen yet? (It would, within seven decades.)

Anthony himself had learned how to count up his days. 

He had come to this truly wonderful conclusion, that progress in virtue, and retirement from the world for the sake of it, ought not to be measured by time, but by desire and fixity of purpose. He at least gave no thought to the past, but day by day, as if he were at the beginning of his discipline. (Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony)

He is said to have applied to himself Paul’s words in Philippians 3:14: “Forgetting the things which are behind and stretching forward to the things which are before.”

My point is that counting up and counting down are related and connected. If I am driving to the Field Museum, every mile away from South Bend is a mile less to Chicago. Or, to shift to my ongoing temporal image: every minute added to the count up is a minute subtracted from the count down. Gregory the Great knew this even without the app. 

While the step of the traveler too is advancing over the ground in front, what remains of the way is lessening. Whilst the time in our hands passes, the time before us is shortened. And of the whole space of our lives those portions are rendered fewer that are to come, in proportion as those are many in number that have gone by. (Gregory the Great, Moralia of Job, volume 1) 

It would be different if the Countdown App had an infinity setting—then the numbers would spin forever! But this belongs to the state of Heaven, not our state on earth. In our earthly state, every person is moving across a set duration of time. 

Yet they are not unrelated, I hasten to add. The eternal relativizes the temporal and makes abnegation all the easier, according to Paul Segneri. Consider, he says, the exterior advantages on account of which we sometimes esteem certain persons. They include great riches, high station, sublime knowledge, or the beauty of a person. But these are only masks, he advises, which sometimes even prevent us from discerning who the person really is. 

The word translated “person” (persona) signifies “a mask,” and…I will not suffer myself to be deceived by the mask which he wears…. Oh, how profitable will it be for thee to keep vividly before thy mind that the world is like a stage, full of personages fair of aspect indeed, but dressed for show! Respect them as is right, but remember at the same time that they will very soon have to leave the boards, and to stand, naked, pale, and trembling, before God, to give an account of themselves all alike: “The Lord is Judge, and there is not with Him respect of person” (Ecclesiastes 35:15). (Segneri, The Manna of the Soul, volume 2]

God is no respecter of masks. That’s why He will take them off us at judgment day: from apo take off) and kalyptein (to cover, conceal), the apocalypse will be the great unmasking, like the midnight hour of the greatest New Year’s ball of all. For then begins the age of beatitude. 

This causes me to wonder if the way we think about social issues, and political justice, and economic strategies needs to be conditioned by eschatology. I know, I know: people interested in eschatology are often not interested in social justice, and vice versa. For the one, this time doesn’t matter because eternity is ahead; for the other, eternity is so far away that this time is all that matters. But surely both of these extremes are too facile. The eschatological reality that looms over each person should make some kind of difference to his or her countdown.  People interested in eschatology are often not interested in social justice, and vice versa. For the one, this time doesn’t matter because eternity is ahead; for the other, eternity is so far away that this time is all that matters. Tweet This

The person who hungers and thirsts for justice is a person who hungers and thirsts for something that politics, economics, and the next five-year plan cannot feed. Yet, the taste of the eternal does not in any way impinge upon our charity now. Segneri again: 

The hunger and thirst of justice is not confined to our own personal good, but extends to that of others…. And so the hunger and thirst with which thou art consumed do not excuse thee from throwing open thy barns and cellars to thy neighbors. Rather shouldst thou invite even those at a distance to satisfy their wants abundantly. 

The hunger and thirst for true justice is the foundation for spiritual abnegation. Segneri therefore concludes, “Thou oughtest to take no thought of any earthly thing, when it is a question of feeding thy soul with this precious food of justice, which is of so much greater value.” The Great Rectification that Christ the Pantocrator will bring puts the current stage play into perspective. Join the stage play, if that is your vocation; contribute to society by becoming accomplished, successful, and knowledgeable; but know that the play is counting down to its predetermined end. 

And if the abnegation of self-love, self-will, self-esteem is hard, what then? Segneri has a prescription. 

If none of the [ascetical] means which have been mentioned suffice to give thee such a desire, do thou at least long to experience it. Desire the desire…. If only thou desirest this keen hunger and thirst of justice of which we are speaking, the very desire will be the beginning of it. 

  • David W. Fagerberg

    David W. Fagerberg is a professor emeritus in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. His field is liturgical theology.

tagged as: Catholic Living Death

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