Something that is on our minds constantly, but we hardly reflect upon intellectually is the question of time. How would you answer the question, What is time? Some may respond, That which I never have enough of in a day! Others may respond that time is a prison we live our lives in, running from one event to another, trying to beat the clock. Yet others may state that time is something they are running out of, feeling as though the days are getting shorter and shorter as their responsibilities in life get higher and higher.
Some may say that time is what they fight for, ensuring memorable moments with their family and loved ones. In this fight, the “emery” is the work-a-day world that is stealing time from us. On the practical level, we can begin to question whether or not the seconds tick the same for all? Can we not affirm that our experience of time is anything but uniform, constantly finding ourselves in a state of wanting time to speed up or slow down while the inverse of these desires often is our experienced reality?
For others, time is a gift and a treasure. To reflect upon time as gift, one only needs to think of a time they fell in love with someone. When time is spent with this person, there are moments that seem to warp time, making a four hour conversation feel like only five minutes passed. These moments of elongated time become powerful tools of discernment, pointing to a timeless quality of the love a couple shares. For the couple whose relationship does not contain this “timeless dimension,” the relationship is often doomed due to lack of life-giving time together.
There are also moments of iconic time, both positive and negative, that are powerfully etched in our memory. As a priest, I often encounter these moments of iconic time at wedding receptions and funeral visitations during the slide show presentation. In both extremes of life, there is a desire to honor love and life with pictures that reflect specific moments of time that grasp the essence of a deceased loved one or give voice to a love discovered. These experiences in life show us that time has moments of mystery that heighten our sense of wonder. Philosophy and theology distinguish these different aspects of time as Kairos, or sacred time, and Chronos, or the normal passing of time.
Science, too, struggles to come to a concrete definition of time. As I went through school, I was taught that time was the fourth dimension, giving it a clear, concrete existence. However, modern science is now questioning this idea of time as a dimension and asking whether or not time is merely an illusion. In an odd way, science and theology have an interesting crossover when it comes to time. Some in science argue that the illusion of time is merely the measure of decay in the universe while St. Augstine argued that time really doesn’t exist, but is the measure of change. Now, as these two ideas are explored deeper, there becomes a great dissimilarity between decay and the change argued for by St. Augustine. Nevertheless, both science and faith do tease out the question, Do we really understand the passing of time as well as we think we do?
This reflection on time becomes even more mind blowing when we consider that the best estimate we have on the age of the universe is about 13.7 billion years old. How can the human mind comprehend what 13.7 billion years is like? As I have mentioned in previous posts, Fr. Coyne, retired Jesuit and former Director of the Vatican Observatory, provides a powerful reduction of the history of time into one calendar year. When you reduced 13.7 billion years to one year, the human person has been on the earth for two minutes. This gives us new insight into the idea of treasuring the moment!
To some, this reflection may be depressing, thinking of our minuscule moments on this calendar as insignificant. However, I take the opposite perspective, marveling at the fact that the human person is able to compress all of time, or change, or decay, into a metaphor that makes the known history of our universe accessible to us in our smallness. Further, to borrow a thought from Fr. Coyne, there is a mysterious event happening in our universe in which creation, in these two minutes of the existence of humanity, is reflecting upon itself. Creation is trying to understand itself and is doing so through us! This type of reflection evokes in me an experience of time ceasing, simply wondering why we have the privilege of being given so great a gift?
This reflection reminds me of another type of timelessness we experience: Prayer. Prayer is sacred moments that, when done well, draws the heart into the timeless contemplation of being in God’s presence, illuminating the mind and heart with God’s love for us and revealing God’s will to us. Regardless of what tradition of prayer a Christian adapts in their life, the first move, invariably, is always to quite one’s self, allow the mind to be free of distractions and noise, and place ourselves in God’s presence. Put another way, we seek to slow time down, perhaps even to the point of having time cease internally to experience timelessness in God’s presence.
Now, obviously, this slowing of our inner time doesn’t stop the passing of time outside of ourselves. Yet, anyone who has committed themselves to a life of prayer knows the experience of obtaining a state in which time doesn’t matter anymore, reduced to ecstasy and peace in God’s presence. These moments are treasured as sacred and become part of our daily bread. This act of Christian prayer also changes the way we view the world around us as a flower ceases to be a flower and reveals itself as an expression of God’s ever present beauty. People cease to be mere objects that bump into us on the sidewalk when we are trying to get somewhere in a hurry and become living expressions of God’s image and likeness in the world, deserving of love and dignity. And a universe that can seem so incomprehensibly huge, evoking a sense of profound smallness in the face of these great mysteries, becomes a canvas on which God brings into existence unimaginable awe, wonder, and beauty. This experience of awe, wonder, and beauty allows us, in our smallness, to be affirmed that we are not a “forgotten speck in God’s eyes,” but we are treasured and loved. In these moments, we discover love that goes far beyond any expression of human love that can internally make a four hour conversation feel like five minutes. In the mystical gaze with God in prayer, we achieve a love that would make eternity seem as a fleeting moment, engaged in an embrace of love that is beyond measurement in the eternal now.
Spiritual Exercise: Take some time today and allow your heart to slow down. Free your mind from all distractions, placing yourself in God’s presence. In that space, open Sacred Scripture and reflect upon Jesus’ Baptism as depicted in the Gospel of Mark. In the moment when you imagine the skies opening and God’s voice affirming that Jesus is the Heavenly Father’s beloved Son, know that, through our Baptism, Christ speaks these words to us. In that moment, allow your heart a moment of timelessness, resting in the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.