An anthropologist tells the story of a Pueblo Indian dance that he attended at a Catholic Church on Christmas Eve near the Rio Grande in the 1930s. There was a group of onlooking white locals sitting in the church’s balcony, waiting in the cold, pitch black night for it all to start. The onlookers assumed that the dance would start at 10 p.m., like it did the previous year, or at least not long thereafter when the priest arrived. But they waited for hours. At around 2 a.m., someone went into the Pueblo village to ask when the dance would start. No one knew. The Pueblos indicated that it would start when they were ready — when the time was right. Later that night, when the onlookers were worn out from fatigue and waiting in the frigid church, the doors burst open to the sound of drums, rattles and the low-pitched singing of men’s voices.
This story is told by Edward Hall in his classic study on culture, entitled “The Silent Language.” He points out something that I’ve always felt intuitively but am now becoming more conscious of: there is something forced or stilted about the way the modern world compartmentalizes time. The uniforming of time by mechanical — and now computerized — clocks has completely changed the way we look at life. This has created a “cultural leveling.” Like in Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie “Metropolis,” the natural rhythms of time — experienced by the interplay among the rhythms of the human body, intuition and emotion, and the cosmic rising and setting of the sun and the seasons — has become enslaved by the social dominance of the mechanical clock. Mussolini is often credited with “making the trains run on time,” but I am not sure that’s a compliment. When I go on a solitary retreat or vacation, where time seems to “get lost,” I perceive things much differently. Reading, prayer, conversation, reflection, writing, poetry, humor and music all have a new and wholesome feel, and they are given new life. Life seems healthier. Even in my long lost days growing up in southern Louisiana, I recall the sense of “losing time” when visiting my grandparents in “the country,” or drinking Dubonnet in my great aunt’s “parlor” as an aperitif before “dinner” (the noonday meal). That was the tail-end of an ancient culture — and a sense of time — that has been overrun by deadlines, computers and clocks. On this point, I’ve been accused of being a hopeless romantic, and perhaps I am. Nonetheless, I am only being completely honest when I say that the clock makes time run faster than man, or at least this man. After all, I missed the bus on the first day of kindergarten — and many, many times afterward. And I have not caught up since.
Blessed Peter Faber called time “God’s messenger.” God works within the rhythms of time that He created. He saw fit to send his Son to become Man in “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). Miracles aside, grace normally sanctifies, heals and transforms us into saints, over time. The great mystery of time is camouflaged in Christ’s words in today’s Gospel: “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.”
If we wish to enter more deeply into the life of grace, and to experience its transforming power, we need to set aside some daily time to “lose track of time.” It’s called meditation. Some saints report spending hours staring off into the sky or the horizon, attentively waiting to be moved by an intuition from God, or just patiently letting the divine life within them grow of its own accord. The fruit of such experiences — like the grain in today’s Gospel — is a deep and interior sense of love, joy and peace (the top three fruits of the Holy Spirit mentioned by St. Paul). When we lose track of time with God, there are no expectations, no demands nor pressures, neither on us, nor on God, nor on anyone else. Just love. Just availability. Our anxieties and impatience lie open before Him, who renews and calms us slowly, over time. Our confidence and trust in Him grows, over time. We become more charitable and less demanding, over time. We become more empathetic and gentle of heart, over time. We become less efficient but more fruitful, over time. When we connect time with grace by meditating, we take our first step out of time into Eternity.
Theological Reflections about Time by St. Augustine
From The Confessions
For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not. Yet I say with confidence, that I know that if nothing passed away, there would not be past time; and if nothing were coming, there would not be future time; and if nothing were, there would not be present time. Those two times, therefore, past and future, how are they, when even the past now is not; and the future is not as yet? But should the present be always present, and should it not pass into time past, time truly it could not be, but eternity. If, then, time present – if it be time -- only comes into existence because it passes into time past, how do we say that even this is, whose cause of being is that it shall not be – namely, so that we cannot truly say that time is, unless because it tends not to be? ….
…. And yet we say that "time is long and time is short" … A long time past, for example, we call a hundred years ago; in like manner a long time to come, a hundred years hence. But a short time past we call, say, ten days ago: and a short time to come, ten days hence. But in what sense is that long or short which is not? For the past is not now, and the future is not yet. Therefore let us not say, "It is long;" but let us say of the past, "It has been long," and of the future, "It will be long." …
Let us therefore see, O human soul, whether present time can be long; for to you is it given to perceive and to measure periods of time. What will you reply to me? When present, is a hundred years a long time? See, first, whether a hundred years can be present. For if the first year of these is current, that is present, but the other ninety and nine are future, and therefore they are not as yet. But if the second year is current, one is already past, the other present, and the rest future. And thus, if we fix on any middle year of this hundred as present, those before it are past, those after it are future; wherefore a hundred years cannot be present. See at least whether that year itself which is current can be present. For if its first month be current, the rest are future; if the second, the first has already passed, and the remainder are not yet. Therefore neither is the current year present as a whole; and if it is not present as a whole, then the year is not present. For twelve months make the year, of which each individual month that is current is itself present, but the rest are either past or future. Although neither is the current month present, but one day only: if the first, the rest being to come, if the last, the rest being past; if any of the middle, then between past and future.
Behold, the present time, which alone we found could be called long, is abridged to the space scarcely of one day. But let us discuss even that, for there is not one day present as a whole. For it is made up of four-and-twenty hours of night and day, of which the first hour has the rest future, the last has them past, but any one of the intervening hours has those before it past, those after it future. And each hour passes away in fleeting particles. Whatever of it has flown away is past, whatever remains is future. If any portion of time is conceived which cannot now be divided into even the smallest particles of moments, this only is that which may be called present; which, however, flies so rapidly from future to past, that it cannot be extended by any delay. For if it is extended, it is divided into the past and future; but the present has no space. Where, therefore, is the time that we measure? …..