Thursday, January 16, 2014

Garlic and sapphires in the mud

Used under a Creative Commons License.  c. John Arnold
[The last bit of this is a much redacted piece of the reflection...]

Last night I gave a reflection at a local retreat house for their annual blessing of calendars and clocks. It is a lovely custom, starting with a simple dinner. Soup and bread, cookies and tea. As we moved into the chapel after dinner, people began coming up to the foot of the altar and leaving their planners and calendars on the steps, stripping off their watches and setting them on top. Here, in front of the tabernacle, we moved from chronos to kairos, not just in mind, but in body. We literally stripped ourselves of the things that which mark and measure, cajole and contain counted time for us.

As I stood in front of the altar and set down my calendar and took off my watch, I had a moment of angst. I wanted to say to God, "You want what?" My watch? How would I keep track of the time when I spoke? Mind you, I have a prepared text, and no tendency to stray far from it. At 1500-ish words, it's a 12-15 minute reflection.

Despite the two angels sternly guarding either side of the altar, no divine help was apparently forthcoming. No cherubim appeared to peel off my watch and bear it with glee to the altar. No seraphim stood before me and boomed, "Step away from your time piece." I just had to. Take. It. Off. And walk away.

I will admit to having a somewhat fraught and fragile relationship with time. As a scientist, I know something of time and how it measured by clocks and by calendars. One second, the time it takes for a particular atom (Cs-133) to move between two states 9,192, 631,770 times. Exactly 9,192, 631,770 times. The very atoms from which we are made are ticking clocks.Less than one half-life of C-14 has passed since a man named Jesus, the Nazarean, hung on a cross on a hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem. As a person of faith, I get that God set time into motion with the creation of the universe. But time and I are still at odd with each other more often than not.

In an article written ten years ago in America, Jesuit Dennis Hamm suggests praying not just over, but with, one’s calendar in hand, as part of the Examen. I’m going to admit that when my spiritual director first suggested this, my reaction was visceral. After a crazy day, the last thing I wanted in my prayer space was my calendar. I wanted to meditate on the eternal, to sink into the vast stillness of God. Not contemplate the to-do list that chases me from one end of campus to the next. No. No way.

But my ever patient director kept gently suggesting it. At first I couldn’t even open the thing, it would sit on the carpet in my prayer space, where I would watch it carefully. Would the demons trapped inside fly out if I cracked the cover? Gradually I found the courage to open the @#$$% thing, and found that praying with my calendar helped me discover the moments of consolation, that even if I appreciated them in the moment — the uninterrupted lunch, the walk from one building to the next, the student who finally figured out the tricky titration proclems — by the time I reached the end of the day, were lost in the evening maelstrom of dinner making, homework and lecture preparation.

Crash calls once a week, via Skype from WJU (Wonderful Jesuit University), and when I ask “How has your week been?” he pulls up his calendar and uses that to prompt his memory. I’m delighted to be welcomed into his life, to walk along with him, through both the quotidian — the math test, finding a barber to cut his hair — and the memorable — he spoke to Madeleine Albright, he got into the class he really wanted to. To hear what he thinks these events mean, and a chance for him to ask me for what he needs. Books and key deposits. Calculus help.

I wonder if God takes equal delight in my invitation to be welcome within my calendar, my days, the seconds he set the beat for? As happy to hear how I feel about my finally getting the laundry not only done, but folded and put away, as He is to know that I went to Mass this morning. To know where I might have encountered “Garlic and sapphires in the mud."

My relationship to time is still a complicated one, but there are blessings here, year round. But God, can I have my watch back now?


  1. What a meaningful ritual to have a blessing of calendars and watches. Those present must have a great desire to give their time to God in an intentional manner. Your reflection is very thought-provoking and motivating. Our pastor takes his calendar to the Tabernacle and prays there with it open. We are blessed with a pastor who is so committed to our Lord and to his people. Thank you for this post.

  2. Katherine10:10 AM

    Could you give more information on Fr Hamm's article, please? I know his "Rummaging for God" piece, but that was from 1994 ... thanks.

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