Without Injuring Eternity
You say grace before meals.
But I say grace before the concert and the opera,
And grace before the play and pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.1
Yesterday I woke to a pink, cloud-studded sky. I smiled at the rose-grey dawn and pulled the blankets a little closer to enjoy the early morning from my bed. My smile grew as I realised that it was Saturday. Quite by plan, Saturdays are my days to practise solitude. As tourists crowd the sidewalks, crosswalks, pubs, and coffee shops in my little town, I pull away from the world for a day. There is no schedule for these days, nothing pulling or pushing me toward itself. I often bake or do housework, as there is joy and satisfaction in the work of one’s hands. Usually I read, write, and mute my phone.
This day I rose to read a bit over breakfast. As usual, my phone was on silent; when I looked at it for the time, I saw I had five or six missed calls and a couple of voicemails. A friend asking me a quick favour, no problem. Another friend in town, wanting to know what I was doing for the day. The morning’s calm, leisure, and quiet disintegrated, leaving me feeling ruffled and harried. Just the day before, as I was about to eat brunch, a friend knocked on my door, coming by to chat for an hour. I had the sinking feeling that this was about to happen again and I wanted nothing more than an uninterrupted day of solitude. In that moment I decided to run away.
I let my friend know I was unavailable for the day, packed a lunch, grabbed my hiking shoes and keys, and drove off into the late Summer day. Thirty minutes later—and three thousand feet higher—I was ready for a hike in the mountains ending in a fen. I had no set course, thus general tromping employed me for a while. When my stomach complained that it was empty, I settled on a flat boulder in the side of the hill to eat and be still. The wind whirled up from the pines, tickling the hair around my neck; its river-rushing roar filled my ears, quickened my blood. A pair of rooks were rising on the same draft of air, coal-black against shining white clouds in the deep, dark blue sky. The warm odour of sunshine-infused pine filled my lungs. Ants crawled around me. When the wind broke its run, there was a silence at once full and empty. Empty of sound, yet expectant and weighty upon my soul.
Closing my eyes, I let the afternoon sunshine and stillness sweep over me to freckle my skin and quiet my heart. I left chronos* time, the time of ticking seconds, and entered into kairos, the time of eternity. Kairos, the time of being without feeling the constraint of time. I may have been on that rock for ten minutes or an hour, just listening to the silence. Before returning to the path, I read a few pages of Walden and was arrested by the line: “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity!”2 Bubbling up within me was an exultant “yes!” to something that has vexed me for years. Like being “only human” or getting general studies “out of the way,” the phrase “killing time” grates on my heart. God made us to be fully human. General studies are the strong foundation for a narrowed field. And time, time cannot be killed “without injuring eternity!” Though I disagreed with the next few pages of Thoreau’s treatise, that little line rang a resounding bell of truth inside of me.
We do injure eternity often, I realised as I rambled along the path. It is not that we must be employed in charitable deeds every waking moment, or that our leisure must be spent only in reading great literature, or some other legalism of those sorts. No, we injure eternity more widely and subtly than by outright sin. We live in fragments, sound bites, and megabytes. Our attention is constantly divided from one tab to the next, from a person’s face to the screen of our device, from our task at work or around the house to our e-mail. Software and websites exist to make sure we have constant variety in our music, going from slow to fast in the matter of three seconds, our moods changing just as rapidly. I am not a complete luddite, as I am typing these thoughts via my macbook. I have switched tabs to look up various things and even abandoned writing altogether several times since beginning. I am not free from this disintegration of thoughts and actions, but I am often repulsed by how technology supplants reality.
A question I once read has resurfaced in my thoughts many a time since its introduction: If you have fifteen free minutes how do you use them? Perhaps I would answer that I clean around my house, wash the dishes, read, sit on my porch, or say hello to my neighbour… But more often, I flip open my computer to check my e-mail and the weather for the tenth time. I do not intend to write an e-mail to anyone, mind you, I simply want to see if anyone has written to me. I am decidedly the centre of my own universe in those fifteen minutes. If I choose to do a few chores or look at the sunlight on the leaves or greet my neighbour, I am often removed from myself and turn to thinking of others, to thanking God for Beauty. I am forced out of chronos into kairos—out of the immediate, pressing time into the unhindered eternity. When my thoughts are scattered and disoriented, I do violence to eternity. Rather than bringing God’s Kingdom (as Jesus exhorts in the Lord’s Prayer), I seek only my own.
These thoughts were budding as I tramped on through filtered sunlight. I turned onto a loop never taken before, deciding to see new things. There was no spectacular view, though there was plenty of fuzzy green moss and a small rabbit with wide eyes. As I set one foot in front of the other, I realised that there is hope and abundant life ahead of me. There are the familiar ways and new paths to travel, much like my hike that very moment. My disappointed expectations sometimes derail me from this truth. Yet I am learning to lay down those dying expectations in order to pick up the gifts I have been given for this time, in this place. I am learning to give thanks in all things.3
When I reached the end of the circuit, I sat on a log looking out at the Pikes Peak mountain system. There are several smaller peaks and various rock formations within the one mountain, and I have yet to tire of the spectacular view. Pulling out my notebook and ink pen, I began listing the things I was thankful for that day. Memories pulled me out of that place and I saw neither the mountains or the trees. Forty or more lines were filled with gratitude. The sun slanted and I knew that kairos and chronos were somehow mixing in a precarious, wild dance. I was both outside and inside time. In that place, yet in my memory. In that moment, but in eternity, too. The giving of thanks for the graces given set me on the edge of time, like a knife blade—not slicing asunder—rather, thin enough to touch. This was where time and eternity met and kissed. As I remembered, as I gave thanks, the Kingdom of God was made a little fuller on earth, as it is in Heaven.** As I received the Beauty of that day, as I prayed often for open eyes and an open heart on that hike, God’s Kingdom was enlarged in me—through me.
Nature, as Wordsworth, Thoreau, and others thought, is not an end in itself. It cannot save us from the ills of men, for it too is affected by the Fall. But Beauty—in nature, through art, in words, through music—does something to us. Beauty baptises our imaginations, breathes life into our souls. Thanksgiving joins chronos with kairos, now with eternity. Memory pieces together fragments into mosaics, full pictures of not just our story, but God’s Story. Good days, dark nights of the soul, big events, every day graces, tears, laughter, all are fitted together precisely to shade and illuminate the living, shimmering image of God’s Story. When we take time to remember, when we let Beauty lead us to worship and give thanks, God’s Kingdom is flung abroad more fully on earth, as it is in Heaven. It is where God fills us with His Spirit—where He lives and moves and has His being in us.4 This is the Kingdom arriving.
*For more on chronos and kairos see Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle
** For more on the Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth, see Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright