Lent and Time


The nineteenth century philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, describes the world as a poem written by God, a poem in which the poet actually participates. In our imperfect experiences of poetry, we might get a sense for the character of the writer, but that author is not really there. In contrast, the poet God through Christ is present in creation. Practically, this means that we can encounter God in the world. We can know in a personal way the force creating galaxies, Pacific storms and Indian Paintbrush wildflowers.

Kierkegaard also believes that we should not describe ourselves as Christians, but as people who are on the way to becoming Christians. We are both in the presence of God and becoming more holy. During the season of Lent we draw closer to the one who already lies so near at hand.

In Lent many of us adopt various spiritual disciplines. But regardless of our focus, most of us will be confronted with the question of time -- how do we use it and how do we understand it? In the Ash Wednesday service the person imposing ashes says, "Remember that from dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return." Becoming Christians we pray that God will transform our very experience of time itself.

We take a great deal for granted when it comes to time. At the age of thirteen, Naoki Higashida explains what autism feels like from the inside in his book The Reason I Jump. For some people, the most inconspicuous sound seems equivalent to being too near the loudspeakers at a rock concert. He writes about the frustrations of not having control over one's own body, and the reasons for an autistic person's seemingly odd behavior.

In response to the question, "Do you have a sense of time?" Higashida writes:

Time is a continuous thing with no clear boundaries, which is why it is so confusing to people with autism. Perhaps you're puzzled about why time intervals and the speed of time are so hard for us to gauge, and why time seems such slippery stuff for people with autism. For us, time is as difficult to grasp as picturing a country we've never been to. You can't capture the passing of time on a piece of paper. The hands of a clock may show that some time has passed, but the fact that we can't actually feel it makes us nervous... We're anxious about... what problems we'll trigger. People who have effortless control over themselves and their bodies never really experience this fear...

It might be helpful sometimes to be reminded that others experience us as people who have "effortless control over ourselves." Still, Higashida's version of time is not completely alien to us. We too experience the "slipperiness" of time, and the odd way that it seems to stretch and contract.

Higashida does not mention it, but the story we tell about time actually changes our experience of it. Mark Twain's character Tom Sawyer convinces the neighborhood children to pay him to do his fence painting chore. He effectively transforms their story of painting as a form of work into a kind of play. During the course of my life almost nothing has changed more profoundly than our society's story of time and yet we do not seem to notice it.

Michael Ende originally wrote the children's story Momo in German as a tribute to his love for Italy. Although he published it in 1973, today it sounds like a parable about the European Union.

Momo, the main character, is a young girl who lives in the ruins of an amphitheater. She is blessed with the special power of being able to listen so deeply that in her presence people find they are able to solve their most intractable problems. People love her for this until the arrival of the Gray Men.

These agents of a nebulous bank-like corporation wear gray business suits, smoke cigars and carry steel briefcases. They create anxiety, always measuring time, status and money.

Mr. Fusi the barber loves cutting people's hair and sharing opinions about the day's issues. He lives a deeply satisfying life. He gives better shaves than anyone in the city. But then the gray agent visits and tells him:

[Y]ou're wasting your life on scissor snips, gossip, and soap foam. When you're dead, it'll be as though you never existed. If you had time to lead the proper life, the life you want, then you would be a completely different person. Time is what you need, am I right?

The gray men convince him to stop seeing the woman he loves, to put his mother in a nursing home, to regard his important work as worthless because it does not generate more money.

In short, they convince him of something that we already half believe, that time is scarce, that we do not have enough of it to really be happy. He comes to define himself in terms of scarcity.

"Remember that from dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return." This week as Lent begins to unfold we can understand these words in two ways, according to two different pictures of time.

On the one hand we can be convinced of the scarcity of our life. We can measure time, mentally converting it into money or wasted opportunities to be doing something else. We can cultivate the stories that lead us to dissatisfaction, that turn pleasures into tasks, that convert being with each other into merely wasted time.

Or we can regard these ashes as a sign that we are children forged in the stars. These ashes can remind us that we are verses in a poem. Every day, every moment, in every encounter with another person we have the opportunity to meet the creator again. This Lent can we approach time more generously? Could we expand our own and other people's experience of God?