Thinking Through These Two Types of Time
Time is not what we think it is. In our rushed, materialistic, and secular world we have one idea of time: it is in a container, like a bucket. You have only so much and when it’s poured out like sand, it’s gone. This time is chronos, clock time, the sort of time the white rabbit worried about in Alice in Wonderland. In this framework, we are always late or early, and sometimes we are “on time.”
There’s another kind of time, and it is very different from chronos. In the New Testament in particular it is called kairos. This is time as the appropriate moment, the “right time,” the right psychological moment, the time full of meaning, pregnant, rather than running out behind us like sand from a bucket.
You’ve all experienced the latter kind of time, usually in brief moments. When you do something that takes up all your energy and you are focused and riveted on a task, you forget yourself in the experience. Later you may say, “I lost track of time,” but in truth you entered a different framework of time. In this framework, clock time falls away and you are left only in the moment, the eternal NOW, as it has been called.
The reason we do not and cannot stay in those brief moments is that we lose focus on what’s outside ourselves and turn inward to focus on what’s inside us: our cravings, our desires, our longings, and our passions take over once again. So we stray from the moment, from the immediacy of our experience, and we enter into that time which is defined by past and present and future.
When Jesus came among us, he called people to this experience of the eternal NOW. He said, “the time is full of meaning, the Divine reign is nigh; change your minds and your lives and receive this good news” (Mark 1:15, personal translation). The time Jesus refers to is not clock time, not chronos, but rather the time that is pregnant, that is kairos. He is essentially saying, “If you pay attention to the present moment, and keep your minds open rather than closed, you will discover what G-O-D is all about.”
Nicholas of Cusa was a medieval Cardinal from Germany. He was an adroit thinker and leader of the church. Nicholas said that God was experienced in “the coincidence of opposites.” That is to say, we experience God on the thresholds in life: where birth and death, light and darkness, knowledge and faith cross over and blur and seem to become one another, there God is to be found. Nicholas also expressed this in his teaching of “learned ignorance,” by which he meant that we must unlearn much that we know intellectually in order to perceive simply the Presence of God in our world. In the twinkling of an eye, God may be seen. That twinkling of the eye is the kairos of Jesus’ invitation.
There is no coercion here. You choose to enter into this framework of time…or not. Nobody is going to force you; indeed nobody can force you, since this is not a matter of compulsion. It is a matter of right desire and love.
Not that I want to dwell on Lent again, but this is surely what we aim at through the disciplines. With emphasis on prayer and fasting and acts of charity, we turn aside from inner cravings that render us dependent upon time as chronos. We become open again to the moment before God, as Kierkegaard called it, that moment when we experience the elusive and fragile Presence.
published 01 April 11