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.

A Joyful Resting Place in Time

I am on vacation…in a pool…in the Florida sun… where I wished to be several days ago back in frigid Minnesota.  I am here…but…not quite here. I am moving forward to something even in the water…not standing still in this pool. I am doing my prescribed water exercises. “Lift left knee. Extend arms. Pull arms to side as left knee goes down and right leg lifts. Keep abdomen tight. Keep neck and upper back muscles relaxed. Repeat.”

I’m doing the exercises, but even in this pool, I think I have to be moving forward, advancing to the other side. One, two, three steps. Eleven. Turn, repeat to other side. Count steps to give sense of progress.

Even in the Florida sun in this quiet pool with no distractions, I seem to feel I must accomplish something. Be on my way to something. If I’m in the middle of the pool, I’m working to get to the other side. When I reach the far side, I turn and start pulling for the opposite side. Until the counting of strokes reaches 100.  Then I change the exercise routine…and repeat…one, two, three, four, five, eleven, reach goal, turn, repeat until I count 100 strokes.

I get out of the pool, dry off, take my place in the lounge chair. I’m having trouble just being here…alone…in the Florida sun…by a pool surrounded by palm trees and tropical birds. I turn on the MacBook Air and, as I do, I recall that I am refusing to be here…where I really AM…right now. My spirit is placeless.

A tiny lizard perches on the arm of the lounge chair next to mine. I look at it; it stares at me. The lizard throat blows up like an orange balloon bigger than its head. I move. The lizard scampers away. This is the place where the lizard lives. I do not. I am human, able to be everywhere at any time, but homeless, scurrying like the lizard for a resting place.

I put down my passenger ticket to everywhere and nowhere…the MacBook Air… and reach over for the hard copy of The Art of the Common-Place: the Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry I’ve brought for a quiet moment like this…a time to think….a time to dig deeper to get some perspective on life and the world. I open to the Introduction.

“Novalis, the German romantic poet and philosopher, once remarked that all proper philosophizing is driven instinctively by the longing to be at home in the world, by the desire to bring to peace the restlessness that pervades much of human life,” writes Norman Wirzba.

“Our failure – as evidenced in flights to virtual worlds and the growing reliance on ‘life enhancing’ drugs, antidepressants, antacids, and stress management techniques – suggests a pervasive unwillingness or inability to make this world a home, to find in our places and communities, our bodies and our work, a joyful resting place.”

The closest I get to that resting place is my daily afternoon nap back in Minnesota. I am not alone in the nap. Maggie and Sebastian join me in the siesta. Maggie cuddles up close to my head; Sebastian rests against my thigh, reminding their cerebral, restless friend, though without intention, that I really am in one place…at home…in the same time and space with them. If I am distracted when the time comes for the daily nap, Sebastian comes to get me and herds me up upstairs. “Come on, Dad, it’s nap time.” He and Maggie are attuned to time and place, the angle of the sun, the rhythms of day and night and our location in space while Dad is racing around the world and the universe on his MacBook Air looking for a resting place when the resting place is right upstairs in Chaska, Minnesota.

We humans think we are superior to the lizard who scampers down from the lounge chair, a superior species to the West Highland White Terrier and the Shitzu-Bichon Frise, yet we are less at home within the limits of creation itself…the limits of time and place…here in the Garden…where we are restless until we are timeless and spaceless…erasing all limits on the MacBook Air or the iPad…until we become…like God.

Discontent with embodied existence and valuing little, we scurry away, not seeing, not touching, not hearing, not feeling anything much but one, two, three, four…eleven on our way to nowhere in particular where perhaps the MacBook Air will take us vicariously to a joyful resting place…outside the Garden of time-bound lizards and dogs and human beings…a delusional placeless place beyond dust to dust, ashes to ashes… and we miss the whole experience…on the way to some place which is no place.

I want to learn to be in one place at one time. I want to live less anxiously. More present, one might say, to embodied life in this one spot where I really am…this one place… and find within it a joyful resting place.