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Living in God’s Time

by Fr. John Oliver

In our family, there is a fine line between two stages of toddler-hood - the generally-easy and the almost-unbearable.  Over eight years and four children, I have come to know exactly where that line is:  it is found in the family mini-van, and it marks the difference between a peaceful road trip and a road trip that, with every passing mile, grows increasingly tense, suffocating, and loud.

The glorious space on this side of the threshold looks exactly like this:  "Daddy, when will we get there?"  "Sweetheart, we'll get there as soon as we arrive."  Time passes.  "Daddy, when will we arrive?"  "Sweetheart, we'll arrive as soon as we get there."  Silence.

That circular conversation has been loaded with benefit.  For the child, her curiosity is humbled before the dark mountain of parental knowledge.  Since daddy "knoweth" all things she is satisfied with my answers to her questions, and can once again sink agreeably into the cocoon of her car seat.  For the parent, it buys me precious time and sanity on long car rides, and I can more easily put the miles behind us.

Sometimes, however, when knowledge is gained innocence is lost...or naiveté, at least.  Eventually we cross over into that side of the threshold, where the circular conversation no longer works.  The children grow wise to the time-space continuum.  They no longer live wholly in the present moment, but get a feel for past and future.  They develop expectations about them, especially about the future.  "Arriving" begins to matter more than simply "being."

The children develop categories in their heads and they learn into which category to place the various trips we take:  the car ride to the church feels like this; the car ride to the Stones River feels like this; and so on.  Sometimes, they measure the distance by how many pages or chapters or books they get through.

To a three year old, "we'll be there soon" is satisfactory, because it means just that:  we'll be there soon.  To a six year old, however, "we'll be there soon" means "you're tired of me asking when we're going to get there and you want me to get lost in another book."

So, we really cross the threshold from generally-easy to almost-unbearable when the children grow aware of the techniques their parents use to delay the inevitable.  "Daddy, when will we get there?"  "Sweetheart, we'll get there as soon as we arrive."  "Daddy, when will we arrive?"  "Sweetheart, we'll arrive as soon as we get there."  That works until it smashes into the wall of now-I-know-better.  The child roars back as if she's become suddenly aware of the injustice of how that circular conversation has been used to keep her sedated for years.  I can almost hear the tone of the outraged prophet in her voice:  Daddy, I speak for toddlers everywhere and in all times, my little brothers and sisters who have been taken advantage of simply because of our inability to measure time.  Well, no longer.  We know the truth and the truth will set us free!  Now, I ask you again:  when will we get there!?  And I will not take "as soon as we arrive" for an answer.  Rise up, my fellow toddlers:  we shall overcome.  We shall overcome.

The self-help gurus are wrong:  time is not manageable.  When in the midst of pleasure, there is too little; when in pain, there is too much.  Since time is elusive to define or manage, we measure it by events that happen within it.  A professional athlete measures time between games; a computer company measures time between product releases; a cancer patient measures time between treatments.  Some of us feel as if we measure time between problems, knowing that that is no way to live but not sure what to do about it.  At the very least, we know that human beings measure time around something.

The Christian rendering of time involves cycles.  There are yearly cycles (from Pascha to Pascha, for example); monthly cycles (some churches offer special services once a month); weekly cycles (from Sunday Eucharist to Sunday Eucharist); and daily cycles (as in "seven times a day will I praise Thee," from Psalm 119).

Perhaps what David had in mind here is the liturgical measuring of time:  a way of spending one's life oriented around prayer and the conscious remembrance of God.  The traditional Christian day, for example, is organized into seven times of prayer that could be offered at roughly three hour intervals:  beginning at sunset, the seven times are:  Vespers, Compline, Matins, First Hour, Third Hour, Sixth Hour, and Ninth Hour.

There is a deliberate flow to these seven services as they visit the stages of the life of Christ, the Apostles, and the Church.  To observe this Christian measuring of time is to invite the divine mystery into the ordinary day; it is to use time to step outside of time.

One purpose of such a rendering of time is to reduce any obsession with the past and the future.  As human beings bound by time, there is a temptation to live in regret over a past we cannot change or in fear over a future we cannot predict.  The Christian writer C.S. Lewis says this temptation is a devilish trap.  In fact, in his book The Screwtape Letters, Lewis has a devil speak that very thing:

"Our business," writes the devil Screwtape, "is to get [humans] away from the eternal and from the Present.  With this in view, we sometimes tempt a human (say a widow or a scholar) to live in the Past...[i]t is far better to make them live in the Future.  Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear."

Screwtape continues:  "The humans live in time, but our Enemy [God] destines them to eternity.  He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself and to that point of time which they call the Present.  For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.  Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone, freedom and actuality are offered them.  He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him), or with the Present - either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure."

As Screwtape describes it, salvation is an experience of and in the present, but for eternity.  And even though this is difficult to understand and even more difficult to achieve, we at least have the sense that such a state of being brings an almost indescribable freedom:  freedom from the burdens of the past and the future that we place on the present.  We can travel through life concerned more about the here and now; giving less thought to tomorrow for today has enough trouble of its own.  Only the present is the bridge to the eternal.

And what might that look like from God's point of view?  "Father, when will we get there?"  "My child, you will get here as soon as you arrive."  "Father, when will we arrive?"  "My child, you will arrive as soon as you get here."