Monday, January 5, 2009

Redeeming the Time

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The future remains unknown to us, but I hope and pray that everyone has a blessed New Year. I assume that the new year has already fallen into its regularity and rhythms on this Monday morning. No more "time off!" The inevitable theme that arises with the New Year is precisely that of time itself, especially the inexorable and irrepressible passage of time. Swept along on its current, where is time carrying us? The very nature of time is very difficult to grasp. Cosmically and geologically, we may measure time in terms of billions or millions of years. Historically, we measure time in terms of millenia or centuries. On a personal level, we measure time in terms of decades, years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds. That is called chronological time. But what of a more psychological or existential experience of time? Thus, the seemingly simple question, "What is time," can leave us groping for an answer that fails to come readily. In Book XI of his Confessions, Blessed Augustine of Hippo (+430) left a famous passage in which he brilliantly describes our struggle with the very concept of time:

What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words? Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday conversation, more than of time? We surely know what we mean when we speak of it. We also know what is meant when we hear someone else talking about it. What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know.

We speak of time in terms of tenses - past, present and future. But do the past and the future actually exist? When the present passes into the past does that past still exist? And what of the future, since it eventually becomes the present, only to pass into the past? And even the present, how does it exist since it is disappears the moment that it appears? All of a sudden, we have some real questions before us when we try and speak about time! And yet, as Augustine wrote, we all know what is meant by time when discussing it, though we cannot articulate what it is we actually know.

Moving to more practical considerations, I believe that we should acknowledge that time is our most precious "commodity." Time is life, because we live our lives within time. When, for us, there is no more time, then there is no more life. (I am referring to our earthly existence here. The relationship between time and eternity is briefly explored below). We speak of a dead person as no longer having any time. His time is up, so to speak! But if we live within time, and if time is therefore our most precious commodity, why do we often speak of "wasting time?" We must waste time while waiting for the slow "express line" at the supermarket to move along. Are we not then wasting our lives? And even worse, we often speak of "killing time!" We know this experience, because we have to "kill some time" waiting for the doctor to see us or between flights at an airport, to use but two common examples. Are we not then killing life? All of this is inevitable and unavoidable, but it does reflect something of the quotidian nature of our lives and of time itself.

Is it possible to fill up this precious time, rather than wasting or killing it? Instead of becoming impatient with the person in the express line who actually has thirteen items, instead of the maximum twelve, what if we filled that time up with prayer, as in the interior use of the Jesus Prayer? The same for driving, walking, etc. We can always thus "redeem the time" with some effort and discipline. (This has nothing to do with "keeping busy," which can become the greatest source of wasting and killing time imaginable. As I have written before, if we could actually be less busy, we could then begin to be good stewards of the time allotted to us).

God has placed us within the time of the created world. Time is God's gift to us. A Christian acknowledges that time leads us to our deaths, but it also leads us to eternity. In a work entitled "Eternity and Time: Oration for the New Year," Fr. Sergius Bulgakov beautifully expressed the Christian hope that time is not a meaningless movement toward a meaningless death:

The gates of the future are open before us, and through them we pass from time to beyond time, into eternity. Earthly time will cease to be with our death, and especially with the death of the entire world, beyond which its transfiguration will take place. Time will cease to be when the Lord comes. To Him, to His coming to us, we are led by time. Time is woven into a knot at this point. It is that truly new thing for us - the new life, the new heaven and earth - for which we yearn. ... And our New Year prayer contains, like the beating of the Christian heart, the Christian call and beckoning: "Even so, come Lord Jesus." (REV. 22:20)

As trite as this sounds, since we are today about 365 days closer to that reality than our last New Year's celebration, it would seem that we need to think deeply about our lives in time and the direction of our lives. For we do not have an endless store of time. Only God knows the "amount" allotted to each and every one of us. It is a gift that we must not squander. An immediate challenge that the New Year will pose for us is expressed it one of the special petitions found in the Prayer Service for the New Year that we offer up to God on an annual basis:

That He will drive away from us all soul-corrupting passions and corrupting habits, and that He will implant in our hearts His divine fear, unto the fulfillment of His statutes, let us pray to the Lord.

Spending some of our "precious time" engaged in this battle would seem to be a good use of the gift of time granted to us by God.

Fr. Steven

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