Redefining Time: On New Years, Progress, and the Liturgical Calendar

It’s about the time of month that most cheat a bit on their New Years Resolutions, realizing that a year is a long time, and that working out every day or not eating sweets or reading two books a week is a daunting commitment.

I have been out of practice with New Years Resolutions for some time now, and I imagine it is because my year doesn’t really start in January. It starts in August, and then revives in January, and ends in May. I know no other calendar than the academic, and my resolutions occupy my thoughts in August rather than December. But the passing of time has made me curious: for those that don’t live in the clear and somewhat hectic academic calendar, what is there besides January? And if New Years Resolution-making is a practice I fail to participate in, what are the practices that shape my year? Should time be a collection of random dates imposed upon me by the decision of an academic office?

Time is a curious thing: God is not subject to it, but He created the passing of time through the changing of light, and there is evening and there is morning each day. Time has been described both as a healer of wounds and as a thief of youth, such as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15: “As he takes from you, I engraft you new.” The most common way to talk about time now is in mercenary terms: we spend time, buy time, save time, invest time, waste time. Time brings both peace and anxiety—peace as it creates the consistent rhythms of waking and sleeping, working and dining, and anxiety as we realize that it measures our days, of which there are only so many.

Perhaps time is meant to be a blessing rather than a curse, a way to add shape and substance rather than a villain looking to steal and destroy. For centuries, poets have written about time, trying to define exactly what it is and our relationship to it. Two poets in particular questioned the march of “progress” brought on by modernity—Edwin Muir and T.S. Eliot. Muir criticizes moderns for “living unthinkingly in the present,” unable to see a definition of time that extends beyond its passing. Muir demands an escape from time’s cyclical nature:

If there’s no crack or chink, no escape from Time,

No spasm, no murderous knife to rape from Time

The pure and trackless day of liberty;

If there’s no power can burst the rock of Time,

No rescuer from the dungeon stock of Time,

Nothing in earth or heaven to set us free:

Imprisonment’s for ever; we’re the mock of Time,

While lost and empty lies Eternity.[1]

But while Muir demands an escape, Eliot wants to redeem time another way. In his famous Four Quartets, he fluctuates between writing about timelessness and a life lived only in time. One of his conclusions is simply this:

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,

The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered; involved with past and future.

Only through time time is conquered.[2

The most striking parallel between the two poets is the answer they found to this question of time. Both had an attraction to myths, as they are stories defined by their timelessness. And, eventually, both recognized the Christian faith as the ultimate myth, the story—the true story—that shapes all of the others. While attempting to both escape and redeem time, Muir and Eliot sought refuge in the church.

The yearly New Years celebration creates in me the same longings. When the toasts have been said, the meals eaten, and the sparklers lit, guests depart to begin a new year ruled by the same cycles of Time that ordered the last. In those few moments after midnight, time seems to be fast-forwarded as we reflect on the quick passing of years, unfulfilled resolutions, and accomplished dreams. The fleeting desire to escape—for “just a moment,” because even escape is defined by time—haunts me as I realize I cannot slow or stop the movement of the clock. And the desire to redeem, whether through resolutions or larger life changes, lingers in my thoughts as the year quickly begins its progression.

Maybe Muir and Eliot understood Time more than their chronicled confusion leads us to believe. Time may always be difficult to comprehend, but our faith offers both an escape and a redemption that cannot be found elsewhere.screenshot-2017-01-15-18-16-48

fullsizeoutput_6fdThe liturgical calendar has interested me for quite a while. Growing up in a non-liturgical church, I had only heard rumors of Lent, and assumed it mostly consisted of fish frys. But over the past few years, I have familiarized myself with the church calendar and come to appreciate its relationship to time. My first introduction was actually through The Divine Hours, a reworking of the Divine Office by Phyllis Tickle. This quickly led to Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross, which eventually led us to worship in an episcopal church that observes the liturgical calendar. Though it may seem antiquated, it is an ancient practice that celebrates seasons according to the life of Christ. A year of living in the church calendar is a year walking through the life of Christ in all of its complexity and beauty; it is a year of redefining time through the use of time.

Something that has solidified this use of time for me is planning my days in the Sacred Ordinary Days planner. Every day consists of a reading from Common Prayer, lectionary readings to reflect or prepare for Sunday’s service, and a place to jot down meeting times, notes, and priorities for the day. As I’m mapping out my priorities, it reminds me that I live within a year defined by the life of Christ, and that my daily habits should be a place where sacred and ordinary meet. And further defined by the practices of the church is a space for Examen at the end of each week and a Sabbath page for reflection on Sundays. Additionally, it explains each season, common practices of the church during those seasons, and begins with Advent rather than January 1st.

 

There is something beautiful about beginning my “year” with millions of students and teachers around the globe, in sync with people whose lives look similar to my own. But one day, I hope that Advent is what begins my year, my thoughts and desires formed by the work of the church over centuries. Time becomes a way to live into a particular narrative, enacting the awaiting of Christ’s arrival with Advent, watching His glory unfold during Epiphany, mourning His death in Lent, and celebrating His resurrection during Easter. But this definition of time is not merely a progression; it is a cycle which deepens each year as we experience the life of Christ time and time again. And in this way we escape the simple progression of Time that moderns exalt and redeem the Time that passes.

T.S. Eliot, concerning the Incarnation:

Then came, at a predetermined moment, a moment in time and of time,

A moment not out of time, but in time, in what we call history:

transecting, bisecting the world of time, a moment in time but not

like a moment of time,

A moment in time but time was made through that moment: for

without the meaning there is no time, and that moment of time gave

the meaning.[3]

__________________

[1] [1] Edwin Muir, Variations on a Time Theme from Edwin Muir: Collected Poems (New York: Oxford UP, 1965), 48.

[2] T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: “Burnt Norton,” 1943.

[3] Kristian Smidt, Poetry and Belief in the Work of T.S. Eliot (London: Lowe and Brydon, 1967), 179.


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