World Without End

PFA83070In our standard English translation, the Glory Be ends “world without end.” It’s a strange phrase, and a strange translation – so strange that in the official translation for the Liturgy of the Hours, they did away with it. The traditional English translation says, “is now, and ever shall be, world without end.” The new, official translation says, “is now, and will be forever.” The last phrase has been dropped, or maybe the last two have been combined.

It’s translating the classic Latin phrase “et in saecula saeculorum.” Saeculum (plural: saecula) is a funny Latin word: it can mean “generation,” or “century,” or “age.” A literal translation, then, might say, “unto ages of ages” or “generations of generations” or “centuries of centuries” – not just one age of ages, either, ages of ages! I kind of like the old “forever and ever”: as in the Latin, the repetition kind of charmingly says, “a really, really long time.”

Before that in the prayer comes et semper. Semper just means “always” – as the Marines are supposed to be “always faithful,” with the stress not so much on forever and ever, as on, every moment along the way.

 So I like the point: in the beginning, now, and every point along the way (et semper), and forever and ever and ever (et in saecula saeculorum). The last two are different, and both important.

“World without end”? Well, I have no idea who came up with that. We believe this world will end. But we also believe there’s a “forever and ever,” beyond this world. Maybe this translation works as long as it’s obvious enough to everyone involved that our present world isn’t the “world without end” – so the prayer is pointing beyond that.

But it’s a lot simpler in the Latin. Maybe a nicer translation would be something like, “in the beginning, now, and always, and forever and ever.” Or, “ever shall be, and forever and ever,” if to you “ever shall be” sounds like, “every point along the way.”

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Anyway, the point here is to distinguish two important points in the prayer. “Now and always” is a way of talking about the middle of time. What was true in “the beginning” will be true for every point thereafter, including right now. But then, too, it extends to the never-ending future: “forever and ever” (and ever). The beginning, middle, and end – except that there is no end: “world without end,” I guess.

Today, as we meditate on the last line of the prayer, we look forward, into forever and ever. And we realize, first, that the prayer urges us to do that. Our humble little Glory Be leads us through truly sublime meditations, both into the beginning and into the endless, forever-and-ever future.

The Christian mind is meant to go there. We are made for eternity. We are meant to see our now in the context of forever. But the Glory Be helps us go deeper into what we mean by “now in the context of forever.” There’s a temptation to think that eternity is this sort of weight hanging on earth. You can never enjoy the now because you’re supposed to be thinking about eternal consequences.

But that isn’t right. It’s not good Catholic spirituality, and it’s not what the Glory Be urges us to meditate on. Eternity isn’t a weight hanging on our now, it’s a balloon, lifting our now up to the clouds. It’s not that we pay now and get paid back later. It’s that even our now is part of the “always” of “forever.” Eternity is present now. Eternal life, as we heard in last Sunday’s readings, is just knowing God (the eternal), even here and now.

The truth of the Catholic moral view, the truth of Catholic spirituality, and the true meaning of judgment is that love begins now – above all love of God, the eternal. We are meant to “lift up our hearts” to God every day, so that already we participate in forever.

(Although the actual phrase in the Mass, Sursum corda, “hearts up!”, is more like a balloon than like activism: it doesn’t tell us to do the lifting, just to let ourselves be lifted up. The Latin response is not “we lift up” but “habemus ad Dominum”: we “have” hearts lifted up, carried up into the realms of divine love.)

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What does forever look like? It looks like the endless, infinite glory of God. It looks like the supreme, wonderful love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s something worth enjoying forever and ever and ever.

Does the thought of heaven lift up your heart?

eric.m.johnston

One Comment

  1. Helpful series. So helpful I’ve printed out copies to distribute to family members. It’s so helpful to add depth to such a familiar prayer, like finding a buried treasure underneath the bench I sit on everyday.

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