Time: enemy or friend?

  • October 30, 2009
Last week, my aunt was taken to emergency and we heard she might not have many days. How much time, no one knew. My mother and I felt we must take the time to drive up next day and see her. We arranged our time accordingly.

Making good time, we arrived in early afternoon. We bought parking time and searched the hospital; she was still in emergency, a volunteer informed us, but time had passed and she may have been moved. The person who knew was on her time off.

Instead of waiting, we used the minutes to walk over to emergency. Yes, my aunt was there, awaiting a bed, and in the meantime we could visit.

Entering the little unit where my aunt lay sleeping, we emerged out of a tightly timed world into a place with a different sort of clock. The main event here was breathing, the beat of the pulse rather than the tick of the seconds. I’m not sure whether we spent time there or whether we stepped into eternity. We took turns holding her hand and speaking to her. We prayed for her, one word after another, the beads now measuring our time. By the time we finished, my aunt, to our surprise, awoke. She couldn’t speak, and it was hard to tell what she was aware of. My mother, who has known her for 60 years, called her by name, looked deeply into her eyes, laughed, chatted; for a moment, watching them, I saw two young women just beginning life, marriage and family.

There are times when you know you are on sacred ground and can only take off your shoes. And be aware dimly, as in a mirror, that time is but a curtain through which we are able, in our littleness, to touch the greatness of eternity: too vast for us, but our real home. How can we get there? How can this frail, flesh-bound spirit lying in an emergency bed possibly emerge whole and unbroken into limitlessness?

Time was our friend that day. We arrived in time to spend an eternal moment with our kinswoman. She stayed on Earth another 90 minutes after we left. As our clocks continued on past her last breath, what became of hers? Time has ceased to hold her; is she now held in eternity?

We’d arrived at her bedside by taking one step after another. We prayed by speaking one word after another. St. Augustine reflected that humans must receive truth this way — one word after the other — not all at once, pure and whole. It would be too much for us. God loves us gently, careful not to break us apart — as, perhaps, pure, whole love would do. Our place, the “home” where we belong, is in the middle of the Trinity. Romanian theologian Fr. Dumitru Staniloae refers to the mutual interiority of love: each of the three Divine Persons dwells perfectly in love in each of the others. God creates time as a way for us to freely respond to this perfect offer of love. But how do we get there?

In time. Through time we move to where we’ll be able to transcend time, as my aunt did that day. Time is given to us so that we can move into that centre of love in which God awaits us. He moves and acts within history, within time, where we are, to bring us to Himself. Because He comes to us this way, we are able to receive Him and be broken out of the bonds of time, which so often seem our enemy.

We see this movement in the feast of the Presentation of Mary in the temple. It witnesses the impossible truth that the limitless One took on limits, and by doing so broke them and made a way for humanity to follow. We see little Mary brought by her parents into the Temple: she, who will carry within her the Holy One, enters and dwells within the Holy of Holies. Through her humanness, divinity penetrates humanity. She will speak the eternal Yes, receiving in one moment what we are given a lifetime to say yes to.

Sometimes I unwittingly mourn lost time and let it defeat me. A word or event triggers an old loss; despair or anger, defeat, anguish well up and I obey:  snap at the neighbour, let my loved one go unloved, lie to someone or simply let myself carry the old weight that bows my shoulders.

What if, in the second between trigger and action, I let myself relax inside and hear the eternal urgings of love, present in this very moment? What if time were given us as a gift to help us come to life? What if eternity really is present in each moment, as my mother and I felt it to be in that privileged time at a deathbed?

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