Matt C. Abbott
April 19, 2014
'The Brevity of Life'
By Matt C. Abbott

    My life has been only a handful of years, and of these, in how many of them have I really lived?

    – Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704)
The following reflection, titled "The Brevity of Life," comes from the book Meditations for Lent, by Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704). Thanks to Sophia Institute Press for allowing me to publish this excerpt in my column. Click here to order a copy of the book directly from the publisher.

A blessed Easter to all my readers!

Like every finite thing, man is small. The time will come when this man who seemed so great to us will cease to be. The days of my life are all that stand between me and nothingness, and this is but a small difference. I enter into life under a law that commands my departure from it. I come to make my mark and to show myself as others do. Afterward, I will disappear. I have seen others pass before me; others shall succeed me, and these will present the same spectacle to their successors. All of us will at last be mixed together in nothingness.

My life, all told, has been only a handful of years; and there were so many before me and will be so many after. How small a place do I occupy in the great abyss of time! I am nothing. This short interval is not capable of distinguishing me from the nothingness into which I must return. I have come only to take my number, and to this point no use has been made of me. The drama would have been no worse acted had I remained offstage. My part in this world is very small, and so insignificant that it seems to me only a dream that I am here, and all that I see an empty image: "the form of this world is passing away" (1 Cor. 7:31).

The whole of my career has been only a handful of years; and in reaching this age how many perils have I escaped? How many illnesses? What has kept the course of my days from having come to an end at any moment? Death prepares many ambushes. In the end, we will fall into its hands. I see a tree battered by the wind; it loses leaves every minute; some resist more, others less; but those few that escape the storm will at last be conquered by winter, which always comes to wither them and make them fall. It is the same in life. The large number of men who run the same course ensures that some of them will reach the end of it; but after having avoided the various attacks of death, and arriving at the end after so many perils, they fall at the race's end. Their life extinguishes itself like a candle that consumes its own matter.

My life has been only a handful of years, and of these, in how many of them have I really lived? Sleep resembles death more than life; childhood is the life of a beast. How many days would I like to erase from the days of my youth? And when I am older, how many more shall I add to that total? Let us see what remains. What shall I then count, if all of these are not to be reckoned? The time during which I felt a certain contentment, or in which I acquired some honor? But how much of this sort of time is scattered throughout my life? If I take away sleep, illnesses, and times of anxiety from my life, and I now take up all of the things in which I have had some contentment or honor, how much will that be? As to this contentment: did I enjoy it all at once? Have I not had it in parcels? Have I had it without anxiety? And, if there has been anxiety, should I count it as time that I reckon or time that I do not? Has not anxiety always divided every two moments of contentment? Is it not always thrown across them to prevent them from meeting one another? What then is left to me? Of lawful pleasures, a useless memory; of illicit ones, regret, and a debt to be paid in Hell, or by penance.

How right we are to say that our time passes! Truly it passes, and we pass with it. My whole being rests upon a single moment: it is all that separates me from nothingness. When that moment has passed, I snatch another one. They pass one after the other, and one after the other I join them together, trying to reassure myself, and I do not perceive that they carry me with them, and that I will soon be out of time. This is my life, and what is so frightening is that what to my sight seems fleeting is to God an eternal present. These things have to do with me. What belongs to me belongs to time, because I myself depend upon time. Yet they belong to God before they belong to me, and they depend upon God before they depend upon time. Time cannot wrest them from his empire, for he is above time. To him, they remain, and they enter among his treasures. What I have lost I will find again. What I do in time passes through time to eternity, for time is comprehended by and is under the rule of eternity and leads to eternity. I enjoy the moments of this life only as they pass; when they pass, I must respond to them as if they had remained. It is not enough to say, "They have gone, I will think no more of them." They are gone to me, yes, but to God, no, and he will ask me for a reckoning of them.

If this life is a small thing because it is passing, what are we to think of those pleasures that do not last for a whole lifetime and which pass by in a moment? Are they worth their price? O my God, I resolve with all my heart, in your presence, every day, to think about death, at least when I lie down and when I rise. And with this thought: "I have little time, I have a long road to travel, perhaps I have less further to go than I think." I will praise God for having brought me to think about repentance, and I will put order into my affairs, into my confession, into my meditation, thinking not about what passes, but with great care, great courage, and great diligence about what remains.

© Matt C. Abbott


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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at

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