Temporal and Eternal – Br. Jim Woodrum
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Psalm 138:1-4, 7-9
In the year 2006, author John Koenig began a writing project based on his observation that there were no words to describe certain common existential feelings and emotions. These holes in the language inspired him to research etymologies, prefixes, suffixes and root words which resulted in a weblog of neologisms and their definitions (a neologism being a newly coined word or expression that has not quite found its way into common use). On his website and YouTube Channel, both bearing the name “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” John introduces us to words like: vermodalen, the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist. Liberosis, the desire to care less about things. And opia, the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye.[i] There is a word from this dictionary that has entered into my prayer life as of late: avenoir, the desire to see memories in advance. On his YouTube channel Koenig gives an exposition of this definition. He writes, ‘We take it for granted that life moves forward. You build memories; you build momentum. You move as a rower moves: facing backward. You can see where you’ve been, but not where you’re going. And your boat is steered by a younger version of you. It’s hard not to wonder what life would be like facing the other way.’[ii]
I imagine that the reason this word has been the focus of my prayer lately is due to the fact that I lost both of my parents recently within the course of a year. Not only have these two losses in a relatively short time been disorienting, they have forced me to take action on many things that I thought I had time to plan. Being an only child, I am now facing the responsibility of resolving the affairs of my parent’s estate, including the clearing out and sale of a house filled with the remnants of memories made by three lives that once lived there. I am very in touch now with the enigma of time, both temporal and eternal. The temporal comes and goes within the construct of earthly time in the matter of decades, years, months, days, or as little as one second. The eternal lives on and on, long past the ability of finite human brains and hearts to recall. It is hard to imagine what exactly eternal means within the construct of our bodies and minds, which are temporary (a word that shares the same root as the word temporal).
Our Collect for today concentrates on the themes of temporality and eternity. Translated from the Gregorian Sacramentary in the sixteenth century by Thomas Cranmer, it bids us to pray about time in terms of our finitude and God’s infinity: ‘Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.’ I would say this is definitely a hard task that can only be accomplished with God’s help, thus why this Collect has itself stood the test of time, being prayed in the Anglican Church for close to five hundred years. What are these temporal things we need to pass through and what are the eternal things we do not want to lose?
In the book The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, Frederick Barbee and Paul Zahl write: ‘Do you ever see your life, in hindsight, at least, if not during the events when they actually happened, as an obstacle course? What should have ended well, did not. And the ending cast a shadow over everything, even the good things that preceded it?’[iii]I imagine that most of us here have had at least one bad month, week, or day in our lives where nothing has quite gone the way we expected or desired and it seemingly snuffed out the fire in our hearts. Certainly I! The SSJE Rule of Life acknowledges that: ‘Powerful forces are bent on separating us from God, our own souls, and one another through the din of noise and the whirl of preoccupation.’[iv] Fear, Shame, Guilt, Blame, Misinformation, and Misunderstanding are often the secret ingredients in a toxic cocktail that we drink thinking it will be an elixir to anesthetize our pain. If it was not hard enough to navigate our own particular orbit, we have a national and international community that seems to be fraught with turmoil. Racism, Xenophobia, Elitism, Homelessness, Addiction, Narcissism, and the myth of self-sufficiency whirl about us like the perfect storm. We turn to social media in the hopes of finding community and connection but end up further isolated, posting sound-bytes that feed narcissistic self-righteous attitudes and then not sticking around to face the alienating consequences. These constructs are of our own making, the temporal fabrications of temporary creatures who have not the wit nor the time to repair them. And so, we navigate through a minefield, trying to find our way through without taking a step that could alter our lives within a decade, month, week, day, or split-second.
So, what are the eternal things that we are want not to lose? The one thing that comes to mind for me is love. Not sexual love necessarily (or what is known as eros in Greek), although it is a wonderful thing (and I dare say, temporal). The love that I am referring to is the love that, in the words of St. Paul: ‘is patient and kind; not envious, boastful, or arrogant. Love that does not insist on it’s own way. Love that is not irritable or resentful. Love that rejoices in truth not wrong doing. Love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’[v]This is a love that is sacrificial at its core. The gospel writer of John says: ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’[vi]This is the love on which Jesus says hangs all the Law and the Prophets: love of God and love of neighbor as self. It is what is known in the Greek as agape. Agape love is eternal because it originates in God and is God’s very essence. And where do we find this love?
It seems almost impossible that we who are housed in temporal bodies could even contain, much less hold on to, things eternal. But, many temporal things point sacramentally to the eternal (a sacrament being and outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace). You could certainly say this chapel is iconic of this concept. When you enter, you literally undergo a ‘conversion experience.’ That is to say, you walk through the door into a narthex, and your stride is broken and you have to turn to cross a threshold. Once you cross this threshold, you enter into a space where two concepts of time conjoin: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is physical, temporal time; that of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, etc. The rounded arches at the back of the chapel are in the Romanesque style (ranging from the 6th to 11th centuries). Once you cross the gate, you are flanked by pointed gothic arches (prevalent from the 12th to the 16th centuries). This journey through Chronos points and leads to Kairos. Kairos is God’s time, the critical moment of decision. The altar representing the Body of Christ and the Baldachino, the place where heaven and earth come together. We lift up our hearts and minds and all that we are in offering to God and here God becomes present to us in these gifts of bread and wine: the bread broken for us, the wine poured out for us. It is the re-membering of the ultimate sacrifice of love given by Jesus on the cross, forever joining the eternal to the temporal, and by grace the temporal to the eternal.
It is here that we come to know that we are made in the image of God, with the same capacity of eternal, abiding, transforming love. The presider says, ‘Behold what you are,’ in which we respond, ‘may we become what we receive.’ Temporal containers of eternal love. We take and eat with the assurance that little by little, with each approach to this eternal banquet table, that God’s mercy is increased and multiplied so that we may indeed pass through the things temporal and hold on to things eternal. St. Paul says: ‘See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.’ Our founder Fr. Benson said about the Eucharist: ‘As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us.’[vii] In this transformative journey through the temporal, with Jesus as our ‘ruler and guide,’ we become able to hold on to the things eternal and in our transfiguration, we can help to transform the world.
John Koenig goes on to describe avenoir, and equates this travel towards approaching memory as headed in the direction of child-like innocence, generocity, and wonder. I close with his words:
‘You’d remember what home feels like, and decide to move there for good. You’d grow smaller as the years pass, as if trying to give away everything you had before leaving. You’d try everything one last time, until it all felt new again. And then the world would finally earn your trust, until you’d think nothing of jumping freely into things, into the arms of other people. You’d start to notice that each summer feels longer than the last until you reach the long coasting retirement of childhood. You’d become generous, and give everything back. Pretty soon you’d run out of things to give, things to say, things to see. By then you’ll have found someone perfect; and she’ll become your world. And you will have left this world just as you found it. Nothing left to remember, nothing left to regret, with your whole life laid out in front of you, and your whole life left behind.’[viii]
[i]Koenig, John. “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.” The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, Tumbler, www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/.
[iii]Zahl, Paul F.M., and C. Frederick Barbee. Collects of Thomas Cranmer. William B Eerdmans Publishing, 1999.
[iv]The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. Chapter 27: Silence
[v]1 Corinthians 13:4-7
[vii]The Religious Vocation: Of Communion, Ch. XII, pp. 160-161
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Br. Jim, your reverse-memory notions came to me after one of those nights in which every single stupid, unkind, ridiculous, deceitful, miserable thing I’ve ever done in three-quarters of a century got ample air-time, and none of the short-circuits one develops to get out of that loop was working. Your message comes into that universe like sun on snow in these mountains, and ushers in the new day as if it were entry into a different world, in which the stripping away of everything that used to matter so much can also include the peeling off of ‘those things of which our conscience is afraid’ (to quote another wonderful Collect). Thank you. I now have another defense against the middle-of-the-night indictments – not that they don’t have to be reckoned with, but even that goes better if one can just get some sleep………
This just says it all! Thank you.
Sometimes, in moments of stress or loss or confusion, I turn like a tired child to the arms of God. Would that I could do it every time! But this morning’s time found this talk in my email in box, and when I turned to play it, I was transported through my life and times … right into the arms of God. And, for this moment, at least, I left everything, simply everything, behind, and opened my heart to those arms of love that have always enfolded me, even when I didn’t – or wouldn’t – see it.
I remember this sermon from this past summer. I get great comfort in the revisiting these sermons. In the revisiting, I feel I am able to take away something else. A little more stays with me. I struggle with those tensions that exist between the temporal and the eternal. The struggle of trying to live in God’s world and not this world. Finding the balance is very hard, and I believe it is different for each of us.
Thank you for this wisdom. During a group zoom meeting last night, someone mentioned “the pause” before actions. Maybe that “pause” helps to knit the temporal and eternal together.
Thank you again.
Dear Br. Jim,
Thank you so much for your beautiful meditative work. It has given me much joy to reflect on it.
Perfect God-given gift on this Sunday that I am resting and taking care of physical pain.
God bless you and the Brothers.
I’m reading this in the midst of the pandemic, in quarantine because I’ve been with a person who has the virus. I am seeing my life in a new and different way. I am relating to the comments about seeing my life as if I’m rowing a boat – seeing and feeling only my past, not knowing what the future holds.
This is so mind boggling. I am passing it on.
Blessings sweet Facebook friend!
Brother Jim, Thank you for this profound contemplation on our experience of time and how time functions in our spiritual lives. The image of the rower facing backwards, and especially the ending quote of reverse-birth were especially striking and beautiful. Please accept my condolences on the deaths of your beloved parents.
Thank you, Br. Jim, for these words of truth, love and encouragement. This sermon will stay in my SSJE folder, so that I can return to it as a reminder of the gift of God’s sustaining love throughout this temporal life and on to eternity. You are young, but very wise, and I find that what you describe is quite timely and accurate for me at the age of 75. Now, with Covid 19 raging through the world, our nation, and even my small town, your words and descriptions are extremely relevant. Thank you!
After losing two old friends to cancer this week, your thoughtful words helped me….
Very beautiful and surely met my concerns of late bringing strength for my journey.
Thank you, Br Jim…great last paragraph from John Koenig.
Blessings to you on the loss of your parents. I always enjoy your sermons because you manage to fit in a childhood memory; I like hearing about your family.
This time of Pandemic certainly is unusual time, but I’m hoping to learn from this experience of seemingly endless time. In a world with too little time, this has been both a gift and a burden.
I trust God is in this Covid time with each of us. Thank you for sharing this, Br Jim.
I write once again, still in Covid time, but hopeful with the arrival of vaccines. However, this stirring reflection of Eucharist reveals the ache in me and so many who have been fasting from Eucharist in this Covid time. I long to re-enter church and community to celebrate Eucharist again. Loss of the Eucharist has been huge and I long for this communion once again. May it be so. Blessings and thanks to the Brothers, who have shared presence with us during Covid time.