Time and Timelessness

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God has made everything beautiful in its time. God has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

Ecclesiastes 3:11

In the classic American play Our Town by Thornton Wilder, Emily, the young woman who has died in childbirth, returns unseen to witness the life of her family. From her perspective she is amazed at how beautiful life is and how most of the time that is unrecognized. “God has made everything beautiful in its time.” Yet, it seems that the only way we can perceive and receive that truth is from the point of view of eternity. To have insight is a capacity to see not merely chronologically or linearly but to recognize the vertical depth of the present moment out of the “eternity” that God “has set in the human heart.” At the level of spirit we are a capacity to recognize, as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, that in everything “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

From her new “timeless” perspective Thornton Wilder’s Emily can recognize the beauty and depth of the most ordinary moments of her family’s life. The spiritual question before us is whether or not we can develop this perspective, this mode of being, prior to our death. When I was a child, with the child’s typical impatience for the present task or event to end in order to get on to the next one, my mother would say to me “You’re wishing your life away.” The older I get the more wisdom I discover in her remark.

In his new book entitled The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, Mark Lilla, Professor of Humanities at Columbia, observes that: “Irony may be defined as the ability to negotiate the gap between the real and the ideal without doing violence to either.” If we live in the realm of the “wish,” the ideal, we do violence to the present. If we miss the lack and pathos inherent in the present, we fail to experience it to the full. As children, we are, in many senses, “future.” Our experience of the eternity set in our heart is a longing to “get on with it.” It is a craving for novelty as the promise of greater reward and gratification. I couldn’t, as a child, yet hear the wisdom of my mother that the present moment is the only life we have. It is the task of life to discover, appreciate, and respond to the “beauty” whose time is the present.

As Lilla suggests, for us this experience of the present will always contain a tension “between the real and the ideal.” This is the formative power of each moment. The “beauty” it contains will not always be our idea of beauty. As we age, we shall often suffer the temptation to judge the “sufferings of the present” (Romans 8:19) in light of an idealized past. This is, according to Lilla, what Don Quixote does, as well as the political reactionaries of every age. As children, we live toward an idealized future; as adults, especially as we age, we tend to seek return to an idealized past. Much of history for us, both personal and societal, is a grand narrative of sorts. It is a way of interpreting life, our individual and our shared lives, in light of our own understanding and wishes. We desire to see life as meaningful on our terms, terms which are inherently myopic. We must learn from experience, but we cannot reproduce it, especially since our interpretation of that past experience is flawed.

From the perspective of faith and spiritual formation, the call to us is in the present, in the beauty we recognize and in the beauty we do not. If we are to truly live and not spend our time “wishing our lives away,” we must practice living in the present. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, as John rests on Jesus’ breast at the last supper. They know the love that is with them because they are there to receive it. We have so many goals and agenda of our own that we are seldom fully present to the moment. We think that “eternal life” is in the future, when it is already here. “God has also set eternity in the human heart.” As the Stage Manager says in Wilder’s play: “There’s something eternal about every human being.” Each moment is invitation and call, as surely as the invitation that Jesus gives to Martha. “There is only one thing necessary.” It is the reality of the present moment that tells us what that one necessary thing is for us. Our first task is to be present and awake, to be “sober and watchful” (1 Peter 5:8). In this way we may enter ever more deeply into life, the life that is now and always.

Even though we don’t have any proof, we can sense there is a beautiful world that can be seen with something more than our intellectual understanding. Seeing the vast expanse of human life is a target you can aim at—a destination. But you shouldn’t be crazy about reaching it, because everyday life is already right now, right here. Right now, right here is the present moment—time. 

Dogen Zenji tells us that even though we believe there is only the system of time that measures twenty-four hours in a day, this is not a complete understanding of time. Real time is the harmony of the time process—past, present, and future—with the source of time: timelessness.

Dainin Katagiri, Each Day Is The Universe: Zen and the Way of Being Time, Chapter 19

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