How do you experience time?
Is it an enemy or a friend?
A master ordering you to build more bricks and to build them without straw, or a kindly helper, quietly standing ready to serve you?
Does it seem to creep, weighing you down and dragging you back with it into the past, or to rush, racing past you and leaving you gasping in the dust?
When does time feel like a prison, and when a wide-open field?
When a punishment, and when a gift?
As summer arrives here in the northern hemisphere, the sign by the school near me reads, “Bonnes vacances.” My church small group has paused our usual meetings, and the breeze entering through the wide-open windows summons me to step out from behind my desk and feel the grass between my toes and the sun on my shoulders.
As I savor summer’s slower pace, I’m pondering time.
Without planning it, time has appeared as a primary theme in several books I’ve been reading. Among them is John Swinton’s rich discussion of time in Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship.
When Did the Clock Start Ticking?
I’ve loved learning that the first clocks were developed by Benedictine monks in the middle ages, and that those first clocks had no dials or hands; all they did was ring a bell on the hour to call the faithful to prayer. This, Swinton says, mattered:
““The original mechanical clocks therefore had a quite specific purpose: to enable people to structure their lives in ways that were faithful to their beliefs and their spiritual way of life. . . .
Without minutes and seconds, time was seen to have a wholeness and a sense of purpose within which the events of the day served as constant reminders that time belongs to God” (Swinton, p. 25, 27).
It’s hard for me to imagine what life felt like before we counted it in minutes and seconds, back in the time when .every event that the clock scheduled “was seen as participating in a timefull whole within which the clock was a reminder of and a call toward a higher power” (Swinton, p. 28). Though I suppose I knew this, it still surprises me to be reminded that “the idea of minutes and seconds was quite a late development within the European history of time” (p. 28). Our perception of—and obsession with—minutes and seconds is not “normal” in history’s course. It is new, occurring with the onset of the industrial age and its focus not on facilitating faithfulness so much as pushing productivity.
“To become ‘regular as clockwork’ became the highest values of the new industrial age. Without the clock, industrial life would not have been possible. The clock conditioned the human mind to perceive time as external, autonomous, continuous, exacting, quantitative, and divisible. In so doing, it prepared the way for a production mode that operated by the same set of temporal standards” (Swinton, p. 29, quoting Rifkin, Time Wars, p. 103).
In short, time was no longer seen as gift, but as money.
I’m challenged by this. Far too often, I find myself slipping out of the perception of time as a good and spacious gift from a generous God, into a posture in which time feels cramped and constricted, racing too fast for what I want to accomplish, or lasting too long for the energy that I have.
I don’t want to live this way.
In this culture which runs by the clock (yes, runs, not walks), I realize that most of the time we can’t live without a clock. Carefully marking time can help us guard space for the things that matter most to us. And being on time can be a way of loving others. But I also find I need to be intentional about remembering and praying and practicing the words that I wrote a few years ago:
“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.”
But What to Do? An Invitation
When I’m on vacation I often remove my watch. It feels odd not to have the cool metal strap around my left wrist, not to be able to glance down and check the minute and the hour any time I wish. It feels odd—and also important and freeing. The discipline of removing my watch, which helps me receive time as a gift rather than a master, brings with it a funny mix of feelings and emotions:
A low growl of anxiety: What time is it? What should I be doing, or preparing to do?
The slightly uncomfortable freedom of having an imposed schedule removed and having to listen and choose: What do my body and soul need? What do I want to do? What does loving God and others and myself look like outside of my usual routine?
And then, also, a spaciousness in my chest. The ability to breathe deeply, to pause and savor, to let contentment and gratitude rise to the surface and blossom into joy.
Over time, taking off my watch helps me rest, receive, worship, celebrate, and love. I wonder if this is because “[t]he real power of clocks lies not so much in what they do—record the movement of temporal cycles lasting for twelve or twenty-four hours—but in what they represent: the impression that we can control time” (Swinton, p. 24)?
Sometime this summer, might you join me in slipping off, whether for a few hours or days or weeks, what might be a chain on our wrist, handcuffing us to a way of life that we’re not meant to sustain? After all, as Simon Carey Holt says, “Prolonged busyness is a state of violence” (cited in Swinton, p. 57).
Might we, together, return and remember that time, like the rest of creation, is first of all love, a gift from the One who is the Alpha and Omega, and who holds us, and our times, in his loving hands?
P.S. Want a little help in slowing down and settling into God’s love this summer? You might enjoy “An Invitation to Rest” or one of my other free resources which you can find here.