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Seeking the right time in a world swimming in stopwatches


The phone rang for the fifth time that hour. Fighting impatience, I listened once again to Kathryn’s calm voice as she addressed the caller’s request. Sometimes she graciously accepts invitations to chair a committee or speak to a group; at other times, with equal graciousness, she refuses. Never does she sound hurried or brusque; this time, like all the other times, she did not mention her busy schedule.

“How do you do that?” I finally blurted. She looked up quizzically. “How do you manage to train teachers, head boards, write curriculum, strategize for foundations and still sound like a lady of leisure in the court of Louis XV?”

She grinned. Then she said, in the slow, soft African-American drawl of her forbears, “I like to feel that I have time.”

Envy pierced some soft bit of entrails deep inside me, thin and pointy as a turkey-skewer. I’d like to feel that I have time, too. Instead, I’m always convinced I’m behind, taking too much time, wasting time or losing time or deprived of ever having enough time.

Once I called a rabbi to arrange an interview, and we tilted our schedule boards back and forth a couple times, hoping the little metal balls would slide into place. Deciding it would never happen, I suggested we try to talk on the phone instead. “We will make a time,” she said firmly, and returned to our schedules.

“Make” a time. The verb’s power surprised me, probably because so much of my relationship to time is passive, a bumping into its limits, a fear of its finality. At the start of each day I’m listing what needs to be done, juggling to find time to do it all. At each birthday I fight back thoughts of where I am in life, and have I accomplished enough, and will I regret not having children when it’s time to die alone?

Last week my younger friend Jen politely concealed her frustration (but was unable to stop the twitch in her right foot) as I drove just over the speed limit on a six-hour road trip. (You could feel the pressure building when I got off the highway early and glided home on a two-lane road, eager to be released from the imperative of speed.)

Clock time is a cruel master. But then there’s that other kind of time, the kind that stretches out like a cat, unmeasured and immeasurable, and lets you simply be. The ecstasy of present-tense absorption, whether in art or orgasm or windsurfing. The trance on Christmas Eve, when you sit suffused with incense and carols for two-and-a-half hours and don’t even notice (in sharp contrast to the Sunday of “ordinary time” when you skid into Mass late, tap your foot through the homily and sneak out after Communion to grocery shop).

In Joanna Trollope’s novel The Choir, a priest points out that you don’t have to say anything when you pray; you simply look at God and let God look at you. This look is more than a cursory glance -- just as lectio divina, the ancient tradition of contemplative reading, is more than skimming.

Time is the very ground of our faith. The life of the church unfolds in time, as we cycle through the liturgical seasons and their prayer cycles. Each of us unfolds in time, growing from baptism to Communion to confirmation to vocation, then coming full circle with illness and death. Glimpses of the divine come when we rest our minds in the moment.

We need time to be human. Yet time, when we haven’t made our peace with it, is our enemy, injecting fear and greed and discontent into our daily lives.

Christ entered time to break its petty, rigid, fearful hold on us. He blessed and transformed our flawed, rough-edged humanity, raising us up to God like a single round moon of Eucharist. He revealed and restored our sacredness by pouring out promises of unlimited love, forgiveness, grace and everlasting life.

Uncomfortable with such largesse, the church soon returned to clock time, meting out indulgences for good works worth seven days, or maybe a “quarantine” (Jesus’ 40 days in the desert) of fasting or pilgrimage. Even today, we have elaborate maps to route ourselves away from “temporal punishment” in Purgatory.

We forget that life itself can be temporal punishment, its hells a function of a million stopwatches. Modern consciousness is too fragmented to stand still. We shuttle anxiously between past, present and future, measuring out our lives, not in T.S. Eliot’s coffee spoons, but in 15-minute intervals announced by strangers’ beeping watches. We seek shortcuts, efficiencies, stem-cell immortality. We want a longer, faster life. Yet in the end, all our efforts are bound -- not by the limits of time, which Jesus already transcended and proved illusory -- but by ego.

Ego needs excitement and lots of reassurance. It needs to beat its own best time. We chase those goals, counting every minute. And life happens during intermission.

I used to cheat on the rosary, galloping through the interim Hail Mary’s to get to the glorious mysteries. Now I linger on the tiny beads, saying the Hail Marys unrushed, determined to believe I have time. It makes me more comfortable with silence, with unfilled time. Oddly enough, believing this removes the urgent need to fill time. With friends, I’ve come to treasure the companionable silences, the knowing looks exchanged without need of words, more than dazzling conversations that sputter wit and insight as fast as the fireworks finale.

Maybe, slowly, I’m learning to make the right kind of time.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000