When I told my doctor that my Lenten practice of taking time to be still in God’s presence before bed had enabled me to stop needing the sleeping pill I’d been on for seven years, I was surprised at her response, “But contemplative prayer takes so long.” Assuming I would want to eliminate the time involved and assuming, I suppose, that I was only continuing the prayer because it helped me sleep, she offered me instead cognitive-behavioral therapy, or another type of pill.
One part of her was onto something: The complaint, “It takes so long,” often runs through my head or escapes my mouth. Centering prayer. Imaginatively entering a Gospel story to encounter Jesus there. Housework. Love. Caring for my high-maintenance body with its routines of salt drinks and carefully timed medications, a morning run and an afternoon nap. All of them can feel like they’re filling up my hours with distractions that keep me from accomplishing something more significant. It’s easy for me to chafe at the time involved.
Another part of her was wrong: I choose to be still in God’s presence not because it helps me sleep but because it helps me receive God’s love and love him back. “Be still and know that I am God,” he summons, knowing that for me to be still before him, even for twenty minutes, I have to stop trying to be God, stop trying to figure out how to run even my little corner of the world. I need that practice. I want that gift. There’s a lot of relief in not having to be God.
Last week, as I was pondering the number of times “It takes so long” had escaped my mouth, the question came: What am I here for?
If my life purpose is to accomplish tasks, then centering prayer, Scripture memory, housework, love are all things to be done quickly, delegated, or resented as a waste of time which get in the way of my true purpose.
If, however, my life purpose—my desire and goal, and the purpose for which God created me—is to love and be loved, then these places that “take too long” may be the very places that guide me into my true purpose. They awaken me to my need of love. They slow me down enough to notice love. They teach me to enter and savor the spaciousness in love, and enable me to offer that spacious love to others.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus said when Judas berated Mary for pouring a year’s wages of perfume on Jesus’ feet. “It was intended that she save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:7-8). I’ve always understood Jesus’ words to be about money: there’s a place for love that is incautious, apparently wasteful, in its extravagance. Now I hear his words also to be about time. “A year’s wages”—that’s a lot of time wasted (says Judas), or fulfilled (says Jesus).
People say time is money. But that’s only true if money is the supreme yardstick against which we measure everything else.
Time, like the rest of creation, is first of all love. Time is a beaded necklace of moments carefully threaded by the divine hand, each minute a tiny locket specially hollowed and hallowed to hold holy encounters of love.