Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Column: Tangling with time

Time is still all knotted up here. The peach marmalade remains a marvel -- a moment of summer held captive, a half-dozen jars of the color of the sunset sit on my dad's counter waiting for me to take them home. Uncle Norb has passed away at 93; the weekend's family BBQ party now follows a Friday funeral. I'm writing out of Lent, penance on my mind.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 11 August 2011.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. — Ecclesiastes 3:1

For most of this summer I have been working off the clock. Somewhere in early June I stopped wearing my watch unless I had an appointment to keep. Now it’s August and I can’t figure out where I put it.

Quarks, the tiny particles from which the universe is constructed, come in six flavors. As a scientist, time always seems less complicated to me than matter: There is only one sort of time, and it marches in a single direction. In my heart, I know this can’t possibly be true.

Time has flavors, some bitter, some sweet. Watches and clocks purport to measure it, but their fixed rhythms never seem to quite match the meter of my life. Time is not a single strand, but a loose tangle of threads. It’s August, I’m at my dad’s for a family reunion, while my mind wanders through next May to write a reflection for the feast of St. Athanasius.

St. Augustine wonders about the tangled nature of time in his Confessions. “For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it?” We agree on a way to count time, but are hard pressed to explain to each other how time works. We experience the present moment as a breath between past and future. God is eternal, ever-present, alive in a present that doesn’t require the past and the future to hold it in place. God holds all our time lines in His hands.

When I reflexively glance at the clock, I tie myself to human time, an agreed upon ticking away of seconds. Working on God’s time keeps me looking toward a time that doesn’t push and pull me to the next task, but takes its cues from the eternal.

Living without my watch has encouraged me to notice the many ways time tastes. This morning I stole out of the blossoming chaos at my dad’s, taking my writing to an abandoned lath house on the edge of the south pasture, hidden beneath years of weeds and spider webs. Now the wind has just begun to rustle in the feral rosebushes that shelter me, while a cold-slowed lizard that looks like it was carved from the weathered wood of the floor shuffles into the sunshine that laps at my improvised desk. The moment has the flavor of noon — time to return to the bedlam at the top of the hill.

My prayer time is off the clock this summer, too. Morning prayer comes with my first my cup of tea, whether that’s 7:30 a.m. before the gaggle of teenagers have slunk from their beds, or 11:15 on a morning that felt like I tumbled out of bed into a roller-coaster car.

I’m more attentive to God’s call to prayer where and when I am: as I help my dad lift my 93-year-old uncle out of his chair, make peach marmalade with my 9-year-old niece, or listen to my brother Gene talk about his work as principal of a local middle school. It’s a way of prayer that willingly entangles itself in the times — and needs — of others.

I’ve stopped watching my watch. In fact, I’ve stopped looking for my watch. While summer lasts, I’m just watching.

Father, yours is the morning and yours is the evening. Let the Sun of Justice, Jesus Christ, shine forever in our hearts and draw us to that light where you live in radiant glory. Amen. — Closing prayer, Evening Prayer, Tuesday Week II


  1. wonderful reflection. I have often spoke to my students about the nature of time as being constant while not seeming to be constant.

  2. “ ... the blossoming chaos ... hidden beneath years of weeds and spider webs. .. the wind ... the feral rosebushes ... a cold-slowed lizard ....”

    "This sentence is by the decree of the angelic watchers ...” (Dan 4:17).

    Angelic Watchers watch the watchless.

    Some angelic watchers blossom ‘up.’ Some angelic watchers are hidden ‘down.’ Some, ‘top,’ or ‘truth,’ ‘bottom,’ ‘beauty,’ ‘strange.’ Then, angelic ensembles.

    I do not know how to lie in the presence of these little watchers. I keep telling these little angelic watchers that they are all a whole the unconscious quantum. They must laugh at me as they watch. Laugh a lot. Or maybe one meaning of my dying to – self – is the abandonment of my consciousness of my time at my level. I do not know. I do not know if I feel their unconscious quantum joy or if I feel my own joy when I take off my wrist watch and become unconscious to it alongside my little angelic watchers. I do not know.

    Maybe I am reading the wrong blog. Maybe I need join up with the guy and conquer large parts of Europe. Since I might conquer Europe, why waste time on anything less? I shall first take over CERN. And at CERN inscribe – "Telphusa, here I am minded to make a glorious temple, an oracle for men [men? what for women?], and hither they will always bring perfect hecatombs, both those who live in rich Peloponnesus and those of Europe and all the wave-washed isles, coming to seek oracles."