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
, Monastic Intern
“The hour is coming – the hour is coming and is now here when we will worship in spirit and truth”.
These words from today’s gospel exasperated me, clashing against a long-held belief of mine about time and the end of the world.
John makes beguiling use of time in his writing, each sentence pushing and pulling us into the past and future. His style evokes how mortal time ceases to be meaningful in the person of Jesus, who often discusses the coming kingdom of God in the present tense. In today’s gospel, Jesus bends time around Himself and brings the future into the present – “the hour is coming and is now here”.
This signature malleability of time is also evoked one of John’s other books, the book of Revelation – one of my favorites. In Revelation, the pace is dizzying, with events overlapping or happening multiple times, and people, angels, and Jesus all speaking, praying, and crying out at the same time. In John’s telling, at Jesus’s second coming all our senses and knowing will overflow with God in perfect union of spirit and truth.
Revelation testifies to one aspect of the end of time and consummation with God – at some future point, God will erase the boundaries between us and heaven and all will rejoice in perfect unity with divine love. This is a huge comfort to me. My own future is still murkily unclear, and uncertainty about what lies ahead has kept me awake staring at the ceiling for many sleepless nights. I feel like it’s impossible to know what’s in store for me, and when I can’t see the next ten moves on the board, I panic.
My anxious faith is that Jesus will come again and bring an end to the chaotic uncertainty of our world. I find that fact quite helpful, and most days I really wish He would hurry up and get along with it.
But, today’s gospel is enough to make me reconsider.
Certainly Jesus says the hour is coming, the future hour of the Messiah who will bring God’s kingdom to the world
But – He says the hour is now here. Jesus refers to His own incarnation as the moment of God’s unity with humans. This is another dimension of the end of time, but this angle catches me off guard.
Don’t sit around waiting for God to act – the hour is here because Jesus is here, and with Jesus’s arrival, deeper and closer union with God is immediately upon us – unity with God not just in the future at the trumpet’s blast of the second coming, but a deep relationship with God now, an intimate and loving companion in Jesus, human and divine, perfect oneness of spirit and truth in humanity.
In the incarnation of God in Jesus, eternity and human time become intertwined. Jesus promises us that just as He is one with God in heaven now, we have the exact same potential when we love God now and follow His commandments.
So yes, the time is coming – heaven and earth will fall away, martyrs and saints and angels will bow before the throne of God, and the world as we know it will dissolve into the glory of God’s love.
And – the time is already here. God’s kingdom isn’t waiting in the wings, and my anxious hope that God will eventually arrive to sort things out for me is just another earthly dream.
The eternity of God, manifested in Jesus, has touched that ticking clock in the back of my brain. The hour is now here, redemption and freedom and peace are at hand.
In this moment, I can’t passively wait for further instruction from God – I’ve got it. Our future and our present are simple. Worship and love God, in genuine spirit and in earnest truth, for God is here among us and desires nothing but our hearts, our souls, and our time. The hour is now.
Ephesians 4:7-8, 11-16
There’s a cartoon with Jesus talking to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who are sitting in a circle. One of them is looking out the window, distracted; one of them is dozing; one of them is doodling; one of them is fiddling with his tunic. Jesus notices all this, and he says to the group: “Now listen up! I don’t want there to be four versions of what I’m saying….”
Well, we have four versions of the Gospel, all quite similar, and yet each one distinctive. Today we honor the witness of one of these Gospel writers, Saint Mark. Mark was not one of the original 12 apostles; however Jesus also appointed a wider circle of 70 disciples, believed to have included Mark.[i]Information in the New Testament about his life is sketchy, though we know that Mark was a fellow missionary at various times with Saints Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy.[ii]We can infer Mark had a close relationship with Saint Peter, who writes about “my son Mark.”[iii]And according to the Acts of the Apostles, his mother’s house in Jerusalem was a center of Christian life.[iv]In Egypt, the Coptic Church remembers Saint Mark as its founder and patron, Mark having been martyred in Egypt in year 68.
In his Gospel writing, Mark keeps a secret. It’s actually Jesus’ secret. In Mark’s Gospel account, Jesus will typically ask something, listen to something, do something like perform a healing or other miracle, and thenJesus will say, “Don’t tell anyone.” In many instances, Jesus insists on silence.[v]And it’s not just with outsiders. The same pertains to his relationship with the 12 apostles. Early on, Jesus asks them, “‘Who do yousay that I am?’ Peter answers, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And [Jesus] sternly orders them not to tell anyone about him.”[vi]
So what’s going on? Why the secret?
Now is not a good time. Sometimes I mean it when I say this. Yet I may really mean I don’t want to, or it’s not important. Often to be more honest, I feel afraid. Have you ever found yourself saying “now is not the time” over and over, refusing what you knew was needed, even what God invited? I have, and we see it in scripture.
The book of Ezra tells the wondrous return of some of God’s people from being captives in Babylon. King Cyrus let them return to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the temple. He gave provisions and vessels that had been seized from the temple.[i] Back in Jerusalem, they began rebuilding the temple for a couple years, but neighbors bribed officials to frustrate their plans, made them afraid to build. A local king forced them to stop.[ii]
My parents would certainly never have used the word enclosure, nor thought that the practice they were inculcating in their children was a monastic practice, but growing up I lived in a house that lived, to a certain extent, by a limited rule of enclosure.
One of the ways we practiced this was that our bedrooms were off limit to our friends. Bedrooms were not regarded as play areas, and while we could play there quietly on our own, we could not invite our friends into them. We entertained our friends in the living room or the basement, but not in our bedrooms. I was always a little uncomfortable when visiting a friend’s house to be invited into their bedrooms. I had the feeling that I shouldn’t be there.
for everyday living
Br. Geoffrey Tristram proposes that much of our stress and anxiety derives from our pollution of Time. Ordering our relationship to Time can help us to experience the joy of the present moment.
REDEEMING THE GIFT
We are probably more aware than any previous generation of how we have polluted and exploited our beautiful planet. Every day, the news brings fresh evidence of the ravages humans have exacted upon the spaces we inhabit. We recognize now that we are in the midst of an ecological crisis.
What we are, perhaps, slower to recognize is that our ecological crisis also reflects a theological crisis. The earth we have polluted is none other than God’s creation. The Book of Genesis expresses in unforgettable language the great act of creation: With power and love, God brings forth dry land from the watery void, and in successive stages creates a wondrous world filled with every kind of plant and animal, and at creation’s climax, makes humankind. To these humans is entrusted the incalculably important task of caring for this dazzlingly complex and precious work of God. “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”(1)
But Genesis goes on to describe in tragic verses humankind’s Fall from grace and its dire consequences. Humans, who were created to live in harmony with the whole of creation, were doomed to experience a profound sense of rupture and alienation: “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.”(2) They would now live in a fundamentally ‘disordered’ relationship with all of creation.
Looking around us now, it is not difficult to see traces of this disordered relationship with creation in our lives. On a global scale, we see how our greed and insatiable appetite for more have encouraged us to plunder and exploit the earth’s resources in irresponsible and unsustainable ways, as we live with the consequent pollution and global warming. And in our individual lives, we are becoming aware that our disordered and unsustainable relation to the created order is a cause of malaise and great suffering.
Now, there is another gift from God, given in creation, which is equally fundamental to our well-being as our relationship with the Earth. This gift, too, has been abused and polluted, although the destructive effects of this abuse may be less immediate for us to discern. This is the gift of Time.
Abraham Heschel, in his classic book The Sabbath observes:
One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word qadosh, holy; a word which more than any other is representative of the mystery and majesty of the divine. Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar? It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh is used for the first time: in the book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness. This is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place – a holy mountain or holy spring – whereupon a sanctuary is to be established. Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first.(3)
We have each been given the gift of time, and of all the gifts God has created, time is uniquely holy: “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.”(4) Time is the medium in which we are able to live and move and have our being. Without time, what would this beautiful creation be – humankind included – but a lump of inert matter? God animates matter in time and sets it into motion through history. By God’s grace, we live in time and through time. And so, either deliberately or unthinkingly, to pollute time is a recipe for great suffering: We are polluting the very medium in which we live, as surely as we have polluted the air and the oceans around us. For us to live in a disordered relationship with time can be just as damaging as living in a disordered relationship with the created world. And just as surely, it is killing us.
In the Monastery, we Brothers live a very ordered life. We have a schedule that determines our waking and our sleeping, when we work and when we eat. The bell calls us, surely and unchangingly, to prayer, ten minutes before the liturgy begins, five times each day. Look at our schedule, and it will probably appear that every day in a Monastery is the same, week in and week out. Furthermore, as a monastic community in the Episcopal church, we also follow a liturgical year that assures us, month by month, year after year, that we will keep the same feasts, recall the same holy days. On a given time of a given day, we Brothers can tell you, with some confidence, where we will probably be, and what we will probably be doing, at that same time the next year, and the year after that.
From the outside, it might seem that we Brothers should have the ordering of time all figured out. If only that were true! We actually often have to admit that we come to the Monastery because we are particularly bad at living an ordered life.
Even in the Monastery, it is difficult for us to keep true to the use of time that our Rule prescribes. We Brothers are as prone as anyone to overwork, to misuse time. It’s a constant problem. And when the Chapel bell rings, making us stop our work by calling us to the Divine Office, it can sometimes be rather annoying! It sounds out across the Monastery and forces us to stop what we are doing – probably right when we were in the thick of it – and we sigh a little, because what we were doing just then was no doubt something that seemed quite important. But the bell reminds us that, actually, we’re not here just to work, just to do and to accomplish. We’re here to glorify God by our lives. The bell, which makes us stop, actually calls us back to our truest identity.
As I reflect on my own life and upon the lives of the many people I have ministered to, I become increasingly aware of how much stress, suffering, and anxiety derives from our pollution of time. There are so many ways that we can make time out to be our enemy. Colloquially, we talk about “killing time,” and what we mean by that is wasting time, frittering it, trying to get rid of it. Time itself seems to be our enemy, some unwanted burden. And so we find ways to “kill” it, squander it, throw it away – on the internet, perhaps, or in some mindless interaction with our cell phone, the video console, or other technologies of distraction. We are always on the look-out for ways to feel “free” from time; we seek moments we can blissfully call a “time out of time.”
It’s no wonder if we sometimes feel the urge to escape time, since, more often than not, it feels as if time itself is out to get us. In our struggles to keep up with our demanding and relentless schedules, time, this holy gift from God, begins to feel like something of a demon, whipping at our backs. “I just don’t have enough time!” we cry, again and again.
But if we never feel that there is enough time, there is something wrong with us, and not with time! God created time. God created it, and God called it holy. There is enough time. “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die . . . a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance . . . a time to seek and a time to lose.”(5) These wise words from the Book of Ecclesiastes point to a profound truth: When we feel that we do not have enough time, the issue is not with time, but with our use of time. We feel we do not have enough time because we do not have enough of it to accomplish certain goals, fill certain needs, meet certain expectations. The problem is not with time, but with our use of it, our attitude toward it. “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven,” and if we can only get in touch with a right attitude toward time, if we can recover the holiness of time, then we will know that every moment is enough.
Every moment is pregnant with possibilities beyond our imagining. Not to see that truth is to have a disordered vision of the gift of time, unfolding before us and for us, in every moment. I love that phrase from the renowned historian Arnold Toynbee, who referred to a theory of history and the passage of time as “just one damned thing after another.” For many people, that is what their life feels like, and it highlights the profundity of our disordered relationship to time. Time is not an endless succession of things to do, bitter sighs, tired nights, and disappointments. Time is a gift from God.
Each new day will never come again, which makes it incredibly precious. Carpe diem, the ancient philosophers urged, “Seize the day.” Each new day asks of us, in the words of our contemporary, Mary Oliver, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”(6) Your one wild and precious life could stretch on for decades, or it could just be today. What are you going to do, who are you going to be, in that time?
A redeemed way of understanding and relating to time asks us to see every moment as significant and having meaning as part of a whole. There is meaning to our lives: We have been given this period of time, this one wild and precious life, in limited amount, in order to become the person that God created us to be. How we use the time allotted to us in this life is how we glorify God in our lives. As Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is the person fully alive.”(7)
God put us here, and God has given us this time, in order that we might become fully alive. Jesus promises, “I came that you may have life and life in abundance.”(8) Reordering our relationship to time is one of the chief ways in which we can access that abundant life Jesus promised us, and that glory for which God created us.
This life is a dance, and we cannot move through it meaningfully and beautifully without having a sense of the rhythm to which our life responds. None of us want to live in monotone, being victims of the relentless drumroll of the to-do list. In order to flourish, we need a rich and varied, but consistent rhythm of life: We need to listen for and respond to the call of different tempos and tunes; we need rests.
Take heart that any small step you try in reordering your time will probably leave you a better steward of your time than you were the day before. Over the course of the next year, we Brothers will be thinking and teaching about Time. We need to learn to take time to stop, pray, work, play, and love in order to be fully alive, as God intended. We hope that you’ll join us and catch the life!
(1) Genesis 1:26
(2) Genesis 3:17
(3) Heschel, Abraham Joshua, The Sabbath, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 1995
(4) Genesis 2:3
(5) Ecclesiastes 3:1-6
(6) Oliver, Mary, “The Summer Day”, House of Light (Boston: Beacon Press), 1990
(7) Irenaeus of Lyon, Adversus Haereses, Book 4, Chapter 20, c. 175-185 CE
(8) John 10:10
About Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Br. Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE was born in Wales and studied theology at Cambridge University before training to be a priest at Westcott House theological college. He came to the United States fifteen years ago to join SSJE and has pursued a ministry of teaching, spiritual direction, and retreat leading, and for three years he served as chaplain to the House of Bishops. Before coming to SSJE he served as a parish priest in the diocese of St. Albans, as well as the head of the department of theology at Oundle School, a large Anglican high school in the English Midlands.
In the Monastic Wisdom insert on “Time,” Br. Geoffrey Tristram proposes that much of our stress and anxiety derives from our pollution of Time, and reveals how ordering our relationship to Time can help us to experience the joy of the present moment. Download a PDF here.
- In his piece “Our Human Vocation,” Br. James Koester reveals the community’s hopes for the Monastic Intern Program at Emery House and the Brothers’ recently acquired Grafton House.
- Life is busy inside and outside a monastery, and we all need to practice stopping. Br. Luke Ditewig offers concrete suggestions on how to stop, rest, period.
- In 2015, the Brothers will celebrate SSJE’s founder, Richard Meux Benson. In the article “Look to the Glory!” four men in the novitiate select a favorite quote from Father Benson and comment upon its meaning for them.
- Br. Robert L’Esperance reflects on his journey to vowed life at the Monastery.
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I’ll tell you a secret about me. Maybe those of you who have listened to me over the years can guess what it might be, but maybe not. It is not some earth shattering secret. I am not about to tell you some deep dark secret from my past. Rather it is about the way I approach scripture, and increasingly the way I approach life.