Saturday, July 12, 2008

Time and Time Again

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times July 10, 2008]

And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” Lk. 9:61-62

Every summer my parents would pour six sleepy kids and the dog into our turquoise unair-conditioned station wagon and drive us north through the cool morning hours to camp on the shores of Lake Michigan.

There were no video games, iPods or DVD players to while away the long drive. Instead, we played word games and tormented our siblings — undoubtedly leading my mother to contemplate the prophet Habakkuk: “How long, O Lord, will I call for help, and You will not hear? I cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ Yet You do not save.”

When these delights failed, we’d plead with my father: “How long?”

“Two more hours!” he would tease us, no matter how close we really were.

Yesterday, in the early morning coolness, I climbed into my tiny car for a summer sojourn. This trip there were no little brothers to annoy (or be annoyed by) and no dog panting in the back seat but a full complement of electronic devices to guide and entertain me.

Still, old habits die hard. I automatically brought up the directions on my navigation system. How much longer? “2 hrs.” shone on my dash.

Unlike my dad, the car wasn’t trying to tease me. But it occurred to me that its answer — while more precise — wasn’t any more helpful.

Would I get there any faster by knowing how much time is left? My mind seemed more on my destination than on my location, the journey just a means to an end. Was I like the disciple in this passage from Luke — looking to the furrows behind me, or worried about what lies ahead, but not present here and now? A bit chastened, I turned off the guidance.

Last winter I wrote a review of Nancy McGuire’s An Infinity of Little Hours, an account of the lives of five Carthusian novices. Carthusians seek to keep their hearts utterly open to God in each moment, to live, as they say, hic et nunc, here and now. I could empathize with the novices’ struggles to keep their eyes on God where He is — here and now.

Luke’s account of the hesitant disciple implies the contest is not a new one. Evagrius, a fourth century monastic, called it the noonday demon — acedia. It tempted a monk to watch the clock, “to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour.”

We can look to the wisdom of the desert monastics for a way to drive out these time-obsessed spirits.

Amma Syncletica, herself a desert hermit of the early Church, advised reciting the psalms when acedia crept in the door. The psalmists call out to God in the moment, and are certain of His reply. “When he calls I shall answer: I am with you,” says Psalm 91 — not “I was here” or “I will come” but “I am here” — now.

When I returned home, I tucked a few lines from “Burnt Norton,” T.S. Eliot’s magnificent meditation on time, into my breviary at Psalm 91. Both are gentle reminders that even when I am preyed upon by time’s demons, God is ever here. Hic et nunc.

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

T. S. Eliot

Lord God,
Open our hearts to Your grace.
Let it go before us and be with us,
that we may always be intent upon doing Your will.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.


  1. giggles5:03 PM

    beautiful... I got here thru Stratoz...shall bookmark your blog...and continue to learn from all of your wisdoms......

  2. Thank you for that reminder of Eliot. Beautiful piece.

  3. I want to talk to my students about chronos and kairos... will use your two hour story somewhere along the way.