Time is our choice of How to love and Why.
–– W. H. Auden[i]
Every December, as we approach the border between the years, I think a lot about time. Where did the last twelve months go? How will this year be remembered? What will the New Year bring? How will I ever find time––or make time––to breathe during the holiday rush?
Then there are the big questions. What am I meant to do with the gift of time? How much of it is left? Does time have any purpose or meaning? Is it going anywhere?
The season of Advent, beginning this Sunday, is all about time.
- We recall the past, pondering the Scriptural history of humanity’s deepest longing and desire, and celebrate the coming of the One in whom “the hopes and fears of all the years” converge at last.
- We look to the future, when Creation will one day correspond to the purposes of God: the broken mended, wounds made whole, tears wiped from every eye––and everyone gathered into Love’s eternal dance.
- And we attend to the present, alert for the signs of God’s self-revealing in every moment. The world is saturated with divine appearance, and the practice of Advent is to keep watch and stay awake.
But time is tricky, elusive and complex. It takes many forms. In The Myths of Time, London priest Hugh Rayment-Pickard posits four distinct modes of time.
CATASTROPHIC TIME is devoid of redemption or meaning. It is going nowhere fast. The world feels dark, empty, terrifying. There is neither purpose nor hope nor beauty. It’s a state of utter depression: time has no goal, and everything is sinking into the abyss of nonbeing.
Catastrophic time extinguishes every impulse to rise up and live anew. It is hell’s “darkling plain,” where there is “neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”[ii] Most of us have experienced this temporal condition––even Christ in his cry of abandonment––but it’s not a place you can stay for long.
APOCALYPTIC TIME shares with the catastrophic a deep disillusionment with the projects of human history. The apocalyptic view knows the mess we’re in: “genocide, ravenous capitalism, grotesque inequalities, world-destroying technologies and competing fundamentalisms.”[iii]
And it looks to God alone for deliverance, as in this lyric by Leonard Cohen:
If it be your will, let your mercy spill
on all these burning hearts in hell,
if it be your will to make us well…
and end this night,
if it be your will.[iv]
Yes, the world is broken and wounded in ways that seem beyond human remedy. Still, we hope: God is coming to save us. We don’t know how, we don’t know when, we don’t even know what. But we believe, trust and hope that in the end God will “end this night” and “make us well.”
PROPHETIC TIME shares the apocalyptic sense of crisis and judgment, but it doesn’t leave all the work to an outside, transcendent agency. We ourselves are invited and encouraged to become the hands and feet of God, the visible embodiment of divine intention. The prophets don’t just wait for God’s future to arrive like a package from Amazon Prime (expedited shipping available!). They point to the Now as the place where “every heart prepares him room,” where we all can join the work of repairing the world as well as our own broken and unfinished selves.
The prophetic sense, like the apocalyptic, longs for a better world; but it insists on our own participation in the process of revolutionary transformation. We don’t just sit still until the Kingdom comes; we go out to meet it.
The source of so much positive social change, the prophetic understanding of historical time as an unfolding of divine purpose may at times overestimate human potential and underestimate human sin. It can leave us disillusioned when our efforts go awry or the world fails to improve in a timely manner.
KAIRIC TIME differs sharply from both the apocalyptic and the prophetic. Instead of looking to the future end of time and the completion of salvation history, it devotes all its attention to the profound depths of the present moment, to what the Greeks called kairos: the epiphanic Now, charged with meaning in its own right, whatever its connection to a larger ongoing story.
Kairic time is the domain of the poet, the artist and the mystic, who know how to find what T. S. Eliot called “a lifetime burning in every moment.” But in fact it is available to us all. We only need the discipline to wait until it shows itself, and the attentiveness to be fully present and receptive when it comes.
As the 14th century author of The Cloud of Unknowing recommends:
“Be attentive to time and how you spend it. Nothing is more precious. This is evident when you recall that in one tiny moment heaven may be gained or lost. God, the master of time, never gives the future. God gives only the present, moment by moment.”[v]
The Incarnation is in one sense a validation of kairos, because it shifts the crucial moment of history from the end of time to the middle: God comes into the midst of world and time, giving the divine presence fully, holding nothing back. Therefore we can find “God-with-us” in every moment, if we pay attention and stay awake.
But kairic time, like the other modes, has its liabilities and limitations. We can be so swept away by the beauty of the moment that we become insensible of the suffering all around us. We may grow so enamored of our own experience that the demands and tasks of a shared public life fade into insignificance––the world out there is “not our problem.” Living in the moment can be enlightenment. It can also be escape.
Does any single mode take precedence over the others?
Or do they all have gifts for us?
The fact is, we live and move and have our being
in all the temporal modes––sometimes simultaneously.
And each of them calls us to respond in a particular way:[vi]
Apocalyptic: Renounce and resist the things that bind us to the ways of violence, greed and death, and wait upon the surprises of God with faith and hope.
Prophetic: Prepare ourselves to make room for God’s coming, offering our energies and our choices as visible signs of the dawning Kingdom.
Kairic: Stay awake for the revelation in every moment.
“My times are in your hand,” says the Psalmist.[vii]
What would happen if we could realize this in every moment?
This Advent, may your own dance with time be full of grace.
[i] W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” Collected Poems (New York: Random House, 1976), 297.
[ii] Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach.”
[iii] Hugh Rayment-Pickard, The Myths of Time: From St. Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2004), 99.
[iv] Leonard Cohen, “If It Be Your Will,” on Various Positions (1984)
[v] The Cloud of Unknowing, q. in Hugh Rayment-Pickard, 92.
[vi] Even catastrophic time may contain a gift. Good Friday is the prelude to Resurrection.
[vii] Psalm 31:15