Towards A Christian Experience of Time

Author: Catherine Dalzell


Catherine Dalzell

<Although he was first and foremost a theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote a good deal about nature. He defended this seeming departure from his profession by pointing out that false ideas about nature easily lead to false ideas about God. I believe that many believe today who would like to be Christians are blocked from belief in the existence of God, the value of prayer and the effectiveness of the sacraments by a number of false ideas or, more accurately, false images of what nature is like. It is a question of basics; we all carry about images of time and space: how things move and what causes things to happen. These images are the foundation upon which we place everything else. These images of space and time, which we owe largely to introductory textbooks and old-fashioned scientific theories, are often stronger than experience itself. Under their influence, the every-day human experience of space and time is forgotten and with it, we lose the ready ability to believe in God.>

A while ago I noticed that the clock on the new shopping mall near my house was displaying the correct time. The mall itself was not yet open. A large shop on the site had closed for renovations, or so they said. But the renovations extended first downward to a great pit in the ground, and then upward past four floors to a clock tower with a white face that you could see at night from the window of my house.1 And now, although the boutiques would not be moving in for a while, the clock had been switched on. "It's alive," I thought. "The heart-beat has started."

The design of the mall was not such as to suggest illusions of that kind. It looked like a child's model of a nineteenth-century railway station, and should have put me in mind not of the heart-beat of some lonely creature, but of that great network of time and space the Victorians cast over the world, marking out the land in railway ties, and measuring time by schedules of arrivals and departures.

But the railway itself is only one result of a scientific concept of space and time that has turned the world, and our perception of the world, into a network of connected lines. We can shunt things down the lines that belong to space, and schedule their arrival along the line called time. According to this model, space is not so much the place where you live as what you have to move through to get somewhere else; and time is neither a heart-beat nor a measure of life, but a time-table, a schedule for projects still to be completed.

Things happen in time, or else they fail to happen at all. Even things to do with the eternal happen in time, such as the Church's cycle of prayer, moving through the year from Sunday to Sunday and from feast to feast. Perhaps the repetition of prayer in time, the repetition that <is> time, is the manner in which the eternal finds itself mirrored in a world where to exist is to change. Perhaps the liturgy is a small invasion of the eternal into time. As a child, I did not think so. My view of time had too much of the schedule in it; where nothing was scheduled, nothing seemed to be happening. I can remember endless Sunday afternoons, great empty wastes of time I spent dangling my legs from the side of a chair.

I was bored. Boredom is a sign that something is lacking from the experience of time as a public schedule of events, useless and necessary though schedules may be. It is the experience of dead time—a revealing expression which implies that, in some way, time should be alive, more like a heart-beat than time-table. The presence of boredom implies that, in addition to the common direction measured off by clocks and watches, time should have a rhythm as well. If there were a rhythm, if being alive had something like music to it, one would not simply cave in because one had nothing to do.

When the new mall opens, with its clock tower and everything else, it will no doubt have piped music inside. Piped music has become as much a part of modern life as the wristwatch; perhaps this music is a necessary counter-weight to the dead regularity of wristwatch time. Without it we would become aware of the void between the beats of the clock and fall between them in boredom, as I used to do on Sunday afternoons.

Music is an extraordinary phenomenon, particularly by the standards of the modern world. Typically in modern thought and experience, we distinguish between what is necessary and mechanical (like the laws of nature) and what is free and creative (like the human person—for we tend to picture ourselves as being free in an unfree world). But in music, the free and the determined, the public and the personal, are combined as they rarely seem to be elsewhere. When I sing a song, it seems to come from my own heart, as if I had composed it, and it certainly comes from my own lungs. But I might well be singing this song as part of a huge choir where each member carries the same melody under the direction of the same baton. Rhythm is as public as clock-time, and as personal as the heart-beat.

Music is perhaps the last experience in which modern man knows what it is to be both bound and free, to share an objective reality that is also an expression of his own freedom. But it is possible that in the past time may also have been experience in this way, a personal thing like a dance or a song.

From what little I know of the theories about time in the Ancient World, it would seem that their experience of time must have been different from ours. Otherwise they would not have described time as they did. For instance, according to one theory the experience of time—that is the fact that life takes place through a succession of events—is caused by the World Soul thinking through every possible configuration of the eternal forms. But the World Soul is not itself the highest being; it reflects something higher, where time does not exist. Our experience of time is the result of its thinking about the various things that can exist. Time came to man as somebody's speech, somebody' song.

Saint Augustine, considering the nature of time in his <Confessions>, wisely reached no firm conclusions about it. But the passage is an interesting one because it shows how a man without a wristwatch in a society without clocks understood the sequence of moments. It is measured not by a machine but by something closer to the soul. He associates time with the rhythms of speech, particularly the rhythms of Latin poetry, with its succession of long and short syllables. I wonder if this experience of time does not contain an echo of the older, Pagan recollection of the sequence of time as something thought and spoken by the gods.

But if there ever was an age when man felt time as a song, felt in the sequence of events both an expression of meaning and the energy to carry his response, that age was long past when the Apostles began the conversion of the Classical world. If time had once been a song, it had by then become only a mindless refrain. The world they were to convert offered its citizens little but a sequence of empty repetitions from birth to birth and from death to death. The ancients hated time as much as we do, and despised those activities that emphasize time's passage: manual labour and the rearing of children, the work of women and slaves. Meanwhile, the philosophers looked for meaning outside the world of changing, time-bound things.

Historians who have studied the ancient view of time observe that it differs from our own. Notions of history and progress—for instance the sense of direction and purpose with which we invest the passage of time—are said to be a novelty brought into the world by Christianity. But even when they abandon the Church, moderns cannot forsake the notion that some meaning speaks to them through the passage of time, and that history is building to some flamboyant conclusion. We have turned history into a highway and delivered the pagan wheels of time from their futile rotations.

This much at least of Christian experience has entered our culture, to the extent that even a secular education continues to transmit it, whether in the teaching of history or in the geometrical images of time employed by the physicists. But of course, for most people, their own experience of the passage of time—more particularly, their own personal history of maturity and age—does not exactly vibrate with the living hope these images reflect. Time simply becomes another thing, to be measured and managed along with everything else.

Finally, below the measures of objective time, between the beats, there grows the wordless agony of subjective time. If words could express this feeling, they might be words like "guilt", "anxiety", "fear"; but the experience is usually too vague for that. It is more like a persistent pressure on the mind that there is always something to be done. Most people I know seem to be rushed, even when I cannot imagine what it is they could be rushed about. Neither, I think, can they. A harsher master than the date-book is cracking the whip behind them: guilt and the fear of death.

Time is both death and judgement. It is death because its passage brings the erosion of strength that leads to death. It is judgement because it is in time that we work and achieve, and consequently, it is in time that we fail. The passage of time is the measure of lost opportunity and failed effort.

At some point, in the middle of all the scheduling and the regrets, one notices that the present has been lost. So one decides to take time out from work, to go on a holiday and to enjoy life. But the present has usually been too gravely lost for that kind of remedy, since it was lost not simply because one spent the present being anxious for the future or regretful for the past. It was lost because nothing seems to be happening in it. One might say that it has become too thin to be noticed, a mere sliver between that past and the future. But in itself it has nothing to offer and nothing to receive, except physical pleasure for those who are not yet bored by that kind of thing. Perhaps it is fully accurate to say that the music has gone out of life.

It is said that modern man has lost the experience of sin; unfortunately for him he has not. Frequently he has no experience of anything else. For this is the experience of sin: the daily futility where every chink and cranny of what should be life has been colonized by tiny deaths. And the fact that the metaphors of earlier generations arouse no recognition does not mean that the experience of sin itself has disappeared. It has simply acquired new terminology.

Where sin goes unrecognized, so does salvation. More precisely, when the Christian word "sin" no longer evokes the modern experience of that reality, the offer of "salvation" so expressed, will find few takers. People will look elsewhere for what they need to be saved from: time experienced as dread and the bringer of death. They would like control of the present so that the day's work would bring satisfaction and praise; they would like less dread of the future.

This is precisely what Saint Paul wrote his letters to proclaim. The new life in Christ blasts time apart, end to end, right through the centre of every moment. gone are the useless repetitions of pagan experience, as time is straightened out like a highway from past to future so that the events of history and each life lead on to God instead of death. And each moment is opened up to the eternal in the offer of prayer and contemplation. It is not a matter of great visions or even of a new, distorted vision of reality. The changes comes through faith, hope, and charity, spiritual gifts available to all.

The Christian life, beginning with the gift of faith and repentance for sin, sweeps forward in the hope of salvation. At one blow, time is unlocked form the grasp of original sin; now it has direction because it has somewhere to go. In time, both nature and the human race are given a direction in the love and beauty of God. Faith opens the past of the individual believer so that the past may finally be allowed to pass away. Once forgiven, those shameful moments are gone for good.

The work of faith does more than unlock the passage of time from wasteful neglect. Through faith, time has become a channel of grace. Karl Rahner wrote that, as a result of original sin, grace is not passed from generation to generation as language and learning are. There was to have been a "tradition" of grace, just as there remains a tradition of purely human culture. Because of sin, the tradition was broken so that morally, the passage from each generation to the next has been also a decline. But in the Spirit of Christ, a new tradition is being carried through time by the saints and the apostles, and time can again be full of grace as it was meant to be.

If it is faith that regains the past, it is hope that saves the future. Hope looks to heaven and thus gives meaning to what otherwise would be futility or disaster. The hope of future glory is the purpose of the work of today. Without it time would have no purpose. The experience of hope runs so deeply in the conventions of Western thought that it is easy to forget that we should find it astonishing. I doubt that there is a single political theory in the West, good or bad, that is nor marked by the Christian hope of salvation. Hope is the virtue of democracy that is prepared to give votes to the ignorant and the poor; it is also in the madness of the revolutionary who wants utopia today. It is a dangerous virtue only because it is so powerful: like faith and charity, it lets loose the eternal in the limited world of time.

Faith and hope unlock the past and future to the presence of God, but it is charity that unlocks the present. Without charity, time is thin. The present is reduced to that sliver between the past we cannot alter and the future we cannot control. If the present does not contain God, then neither does it contain man. He is rushed through it too quickly to find himself there.

It is hard to speak of something as universal as time without becoming abstract and complex, and yet the Church has found an image for the Christian experience of time that needs no metaphysics to be understood: the popular devotion to the Sacred Heart. False mysticism tends to look for God where we are not: beyond time and outside of suffering humanity. But in the heart of Jesus we are taken to the heart of time, and to the heart of man. Here is the new heart-beat and the new rhythm of the Christian life, the dying and rebirth in Christ that is the Church's mission until the end of time.

If the Word of God is the heart of time and fills each present moment, then time cannot be "thin" or vanishing; nor should we feel rushed from each moment to the next. Some portion of the stillness of eternal life is there for us beneath the clatter of everyday activity. To remain in that stillness while continuing to act would be to achieve the ideal of contemplation in action.

So with a new experience of time, the Christian will also have a new experience of action. Indeed it may be the first time in his life that he experiences himself as someone capable of action, instead of someone merely being acted upon. And as he learns to act, he will learn to feel time differently.

Virtue, which describes the quality of Christian action, is an interesting word. With the same root as virility and virtuosity, it refers to a sort of "manliness" of behaviour. Virtue is associated with being effective and potent, being able to make something happen, to create something that was not there before. To be virtuous is in a sense to be like God: to create, to build, to know and to love. So virtue is what can be expected from someone living in Christ, that is to say an increasingly competent and energetic assessment of what needs to be done, with the willingness to do it. The image of Christ as the vine with ourselves as the branches looks placid enough, until you watch the growth of a plant through time-lapse photography. There you can see the branches reaching out from their centre, building onto each other and putting out leaves towards the sun. Similarly we are to reach outward through history and the nations.

I began this essay with a clock in a tower and all the images of linear, mathematical time-table thinking that go with it. And it seems that for many people, that is what time is: an unyielding external thing that drags them impotently through life. It is an unappealing image, and the philosophers and scientists have had trouble with the consequences of seeing time as no more than the sort of thing that a clock can measure. But in the experience of new life, one becomes aware that the fundamental notion is cause and effect that is fundamental, beginning with that cause of the universe that we call creation, rather than the notion of a sequence of events.

In fact, we only know that time passes because things change, and these changes are caused by other changes. Time results from the fact that things have the power to act, a power they hold from their creation by God. And we measure time by the sequence of things that come into being and are destroyed. We measure human history by the sequence of human generations, and civilizations by the networks of changes and by exchanges of ideas. Instead of picturing time as a line it would perhaps be more helpful to picture it as an interlocking collection of networks, one for each chain of causality in the universe; and running through them all, would be the pattern of grace that entered the world through Christ. It would be a complicated picture, as complicated as creation itself, but with the advantage that each of use would see himself in the middle of the action, and not sidelined somewhere while "life passes me by."

The Christian experience of time combines two things that are normally considered to be separate: the awareness of peace and the empowerment to act. It looks for the eternal in that which seems most distant from it: the world of time with its mundane routine and its sentence of death. But we were told that things would be this way: "He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it." (Mt. 10:39).