Traveling from time to timelessness
Just one verse each day.
What difference does a year make? What difference does a decade make?
I think of these things as 2019 draws to a close. A new year starts very soon—and a new decade? What of it?
When I was 8 years old, my family went to see my mother’s brother. Uncle Willie and Aunt Fran always hosted a New Year’s Eve party. I didn’t understand the event very well, but I knew that we got to eat potato chips, drink soda, and stay up late. We’d gone to their house for New Year’s Eve as long as I could remember, which, admittedly, wasn’t really very long.
One year was different. It was 1969. People seemed excited about two numbers changing that year. Somehow, it was a big deal that we’d be beginning a new decade. The 70s! But no one could tell me why that was so important.
Fifty years later, I see that many of the kids I ran around with that night now have children of their own. We’re all carrying the weight of years upon us. What will they make of the change of year and decade, as 2019 becomes 2020?
Some see the passage of time as cruel, or, perhaps better said, merciless. Novelist John Updike wrote: “Suspect each moment, for it is a thief, tiptoeing away with more than it brings.” That’s a bleak view of time, isn’t it? It seems to suggest that the flow of time is receding, rather than going anywhere. In other words, the passage of time on that view can only be seen as an erosion of life. Stretch that bleak view of time as far as you can, and what do you get? You end up with the claim by philosopher Thomas Nagel that, “We are an episode between two oblivions.” We simply are, and then, we simply are not. We came from nothing; we are tending towards nothing.
The Christian view of time is so very different! St. Therese of Lisieux said that, “We are a chapter between two eternities.” In other words, we are from God and we are for God. The passage of time represents not a process of decay, but rather a process of fulfillment and consummation—if only we will let it be so!
Time is what we go through to arrive at our destiny. The passage of time is the marking of human life stepping towards the end for which it was made, namely, the true love of God for eternity. We can choose to live our life in time well, and so enter eternity prepared to see the face of God and live. Or we can choose to live our time badly, thereby fating ourselves to an eternity without light, without love, without joy. What we do with our time will determine how we live timelessness.
What has this to do with New Year’s Eve? What does this have to do with 2019 become 2020? What I’ve noted here about the passage of time will require more of us than simply remembering to write the proper number on business documents and checks—a process I’ve already failed at, as I exchanged emails last week with colleagues about plans for the coming year. We may forget the number for a day or two, but inevitably the whole world will be on board to mark the new year and the new decade.
More importantly, all of our lives will have taken another step closer to ending. Fifty years ago, at that New Year’s Eve party, I hadn’t given much thought to the passage of time. There wasn’t a lot of personal past for me to remember, and I just always assumed that there would be time. I would get older, but I didn’t think about getting old.
Pope Francis: “I think of when … I must say good-bye”
Fifty years later, I think about running out of time, not having the opportunity to pursue, discover and achieve all that I might wish. Realistically, it must be true that I have more time behind me than before. I don’t expect to be writing a column 50 years from now! (But my mentor Paul Weiss wrote till the day he died at 101!) I think more these days about regrets, about hope, and about not presuming upon the future. There’s a sense in which we only have this one moment to do what’s right, only this moment to know and love what is true, good and beautiful. We only have this moment to be grateful for what we’ve had and to ask for what we need next. We only have this moment to choose to prepare to meet God face to face. We’re running out of time—let’s live accordingly.
When I write next, I will offer some reflections on the value of silence. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Why John Paul and Benedict say “Start your purgatory today”