Another year gone by. A new calendar tacked to the wall. Is
it because we are growing older that we feel increasingly out-paced by the
passage of time? The clock ticks, and we are powerless to stay its hands. Ever
in pursuit of time, we only seem to make it go faster with our impatience, our
insistence that "we need it NOW." In today's culture, speed is a
first-prize commodity. From instant pudding to instant cameras, fast food and
faxes, we have come to expect instant gratification via express delivery.
Our-very concept of speed is being constantly redefined with the help of the
computer industry and the ubiquitous PC. Modern science has stretched the
measure of time in both directions, from pico-seconds to light years, far beyond
the human scale. No wonder many of us are feeling left behind and frustrated by
the fact that we have "no time."
The subject of time has occupied the minds of philosophers, poets, scientists and theologians through the centuries, and it remains elusive. Scientists can measure time; they cannot say what it is. To the question of what is time, Blessed Augustine gives as good an answer as any in his Confessions: "If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain what it is to him who asks me, I do not know."
Different world-views support different concepts of time. Most ancient cultures, taking their cue from the recurring seasons, viewed time as cyclical in nature, and this is still a strong element in Eastern religions. In the Judeo-Christian world-view, time is linear: it has a beginning and it will have an end. "Beyond any doubt," writes Blessed Augustine, "the world was made not in time, but simultaneously with time." (City of God) It has taken science almost two millennia to recognize this fact from Divine Revelation. Einstein showed that time and space belong to this physical universe, and later developments in physics have suggested that time, like matter, can be created by quantum process.
The fact that time did not always exist brings us to the subject of eternity. Because this is so foreign to our human experience, any explanation is only adequate. "Our intellect can only conceive things according to our nature and measures the eternal by a past and a future" (St. Gregory of Nyssa). We tend to think of eternity as time that goes on and on without end, but it is "neither time nor part of time." Blessed Augustine explains eternity as "the substance of God, which has nothing that is changeable. There is nothing there that is past, as if it were no longer; nothing there is future, as if it not yet were. There is nothing there except 'is'." (Explanation of Psalms) It has otherwise been defined as "the simultaneous presence of all time."
How do all these mind-bending explanations relate to us on a practical level?
Our lives are, for the most part, centered in the present. When we think of the future, it is usually the near future: our schedule for the next week. plans for summer vacation, retirement. We are creatures of time, created in time, but we are destined for eternity. And what is this temporal life by comparison? It is even a vapour that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away (James 4:14). Should we not, then, give more thought to preparing ourselves for eternity, to making this the focus of our lives? In reflecting more frequently on the subject of time and eternity, we can find motivation for this difficult task. It can mean the difference between spending eternity in unrelieved darkness, where the worm dieth not and the fire is never quenched, and spending it in union with God, which is to say, eternal blessedness.
Time was created by God, and time is therefore good. It has been said that "time is salvation." But time has also suffered as a result of man's fall (physicists have discovered that time can be warped), and our impression of time speeding up may not be purely imaginary. Saint Nilus the Myrrh streamer of Mt Athos (+1651) prophesied that in the last times, "The day will spin like an hour, a week like a day, a month like a week, and a year like a month. For the evil of man will cause even the elements to become strained; they will become tense and hurried..."
To assist us out of this maelstrom, we have the Church. Here we find a link between the visible and invisible worlds, between time and eternity. Here we offer glory to God, "both now and ever, and unto ages of ages.' The church services are meant to transport us out of this world, out of this present time, and to elevate us towards what is eternal. All worldly cares, which we are called to lay aside, include any notion of time (alarm watches, therefore, should be turned off or left at home). When we are engrossed in the services, as we should be, we are indeed oblivious to time.
We also have the example of the saints, men and women "not of this world," as our Lord Jesus Christ calls all of us to be if we desire to be His true followers. Some saints tasted eternity even while in this temporal life. Did Christ not say, The kingdom of heaven is within you? Again, eternity does not lie somewhere in the future; eternity/s; it is a present reality. St. Macarius the Great writes from experience that by purifying his intellect, man is granted grace through which he is "here and now raised to the eternal world and perceives its beauty and its wonder."
One of the ways that the saints gained access to this eternal world was through stillness, a concept foreign to our contemporary culture. "Stillness," writes St. Peter of Damaskos, "is the basis of the soul's purification .... By removing ourselves from human society and distraction, we escape from turmoil and from him who walks about like a lion, seeking whom he may devour, through idle talk and the worries of life. Instead, we have but one concern, how to do God's will and to prepare our soul so that it is not condemned when we die." Here is a wonderful antidote to the hectic pace of our lives today. While few of us can withdraw so completely from the world, we all need to make time in our busy schedules for stillness, for hiding ourselves in the inner chambers of our hearts, and reaching for what is eternal. Such quiet times should likewise be provided for our children, who are so readily wound up by the Pac-Man pace of the here and now.
The prospect of eternity and the end of our life on earth can be terrifying. However, we know that our Saviour's redeeming Passion opened for us the door to eternal life, and if we make an effort to purify our souls and acquire a clean conscience, we can rejoice in the passage of time, in the sure hope that now is our salvation nearer than when we believed (Rom. 14:11).
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