Bemused by Time

Gordon C. Stewart, August 8, 2013 copyright.

I have always been bemused by time . . . and place. I am on a train listening in the night to the eerie sound of the train whistle and the constant click-clacking of the wheels. Where were we? Where are we going – and why, just my mother and I?

We were between times and places. My father had shipped out for war in the South Pacific. Hewas somewhere on a ship and might not return. My mother and I were on our way from LA to Boston. Two different places: one hours behind, one many hours ahead. But for the time being, there was only the now of the train, the whistle, and the steady clickety-clack from the track carrying us from there to here to there, from then to now to then. Perplexity with time and place is my earliest memory.

We are all in transit. But from where to where and from when to when have become less and less my questions.

I do not share the popular view that time is an illusion or that the material world is the prison from which we will be released at death. Time and place are gifts of creaturely existence, boundaries within which we live our lives appreciatively or scornfully in the midst of the Eternal. To scorn them is to deprecate existence itself in the Promethean hope that we can steal fire from the gods to become what we are not: timeless and placeless.

Time and place are set within the larger Mystery that Rudolph Otto called the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans – the Mystery that makes us mortals tremble and fascinates us at the same time, the Mystery of the Eternal without which we are nothing that draws us to itself like iron to a magnet. Time and place – birth, finite life, death – exist within the Mystery of that which does not die: Eternity.

I am not amused by the denial of death that is so rampant in our culture. Surveys show that roughly 90% of Americans, regardless of religious affiliation, believe in life after death, by which they do not mean that life will go on without them, but that they themselves will never die.

I have come to believe that the denial of death and the fear of death lie close to the core of American culture at its worst. Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death informs how I see the world and myself; Becker sits beside me as I turn to the Scriptures in the morning.

Psalm 90:1-5, paraphrased by Isaac Watts (1719) and sung as the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is as much in my early memory bank as the train whistle on the ride to Boston. It has always represented a mature faith that takes seriously Otto’s Mysterium:

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received its frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

Time, like an every rolling stream
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while life shall last
And our eternal home.

Standing at the gravesites over the years, I have prayed the same prayer so many times that it has become an essential part of me. I confess that I don’t know what it means exactly but it expresses the sentiment of good faith as I have come to understand it for myself.

O Lord, support us all the day long,
until the shadows lengthen,
and the evening comes,
and busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then, in Your mercy,
grant us a safe lodging,
a holy rest,
and peace at the last.

The shadows have grown longer since the trip to Boston and the first time I sang the hymn. Evening is closer now. The sense of the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans is different but no less real now than it was on the train to Boston. The hush of the busy world will come soon enough. Between now and the day my work is done, I want to listen more attentively for the Hush in the midst of time, and give thanks that the Silence is not empty. It is full of Eternity. I am bemused by time.

Click O God, Our Help in Ages Past for a video that captures the spirit of the hymn and the prayer.

20 thoughts on “Bemused by Time

  1. “I have come to believe that the denial of death and the fear of death lie close to the core of American culture at its worst.”. I think you are right, Gordon. This would make a fine sermon.

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    • Dennis, Your comments have special meaning to me. Via Lucis is by far the most thoughtful, insightful blog I have seen. If you think this would make a good sermon, I’ll take you advise. Tomorrow may be the day. I’ve been away from Via Lucis for too long. Will be catching up on your posts soon. Thanks for continuing to read and comment despite my recent lack of reciprocity.

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      • Gordon, we always look forward to your words. We have a new post coming out on Monday that you may find interesting, especially since there are multiple references to our favorite pastor in Chaska, Minnesota.

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      • Whoah! I’ll be all eyes. I’m still wading through the book proposal process. Interesting that the closer I get to finishing, the less convinced I am that it’s saying what I really want to say. I think the piece I just posted may become an Introduction. Possible title: When the Busy World Is Hushed: Essays from the Midst of Time. Or…Bemused by Time: Listening for the Hush.

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  2. Gordon, I am often bemused by your blog offerings. This one drove me back to Heidegger’s “Sein und Zeit” and to the ensuing reflections on Phenomenology. Time and place is always dependent upon being. Your recollection of the train journey WAS a part of your being, IS still a part of your bring and WILL be always a part of your being. I think maybe F. Buechner said it in an enlightened manner when he said that memories are the stuff of our lives. As always, thanks.

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    • Jim, I, too, remember Heidegger’s “Sein und Zeit” along with Sartre’s ponderings and Marcel’s among others, and am influenced in some way by them all. I do carry the train wherever I go. In an photograph taken shortly after arriving in Boston I am holding a coal car. Thanks again, Jim. I hope you’ll be able to join others from the McCormick Class of ’67 in October when Wayne Boulton is to be honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award. Grace and Peace.

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      • Jim, the banquet is the evening of Oct. 17. The MTS website has all the information – events begin on the 16 and culminate with a round-table on the Ethics of Resistance Friday morning. MTS has guest rooms. That’s where Kay and I will be staying.

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  3. Great and eloquent piece Gordon. Your pieces often draw me in to introspection which I know is the intent so they work. Love it. Might this be a piece for your sermon?

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    • Chuck, I hadn’t thought of it as a sermon but, now that mention it…. As for intent, I really write them without intent. They just come out of me. Glad it was meaningful to you. Not sure how it will strike others, but each of us does our own thinking, feeling, and believing in such matters. If it serves no other purpose than to prompt reflection, I’d be more than happy.

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  4. Hmmm. And Yes.

    “Time and place are gifts of creaturely existence, boundaries within which we live our lives appreciatively or scornfully in the midst of the Eternal.”

    Good work, Gordon!

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