Saturday, November 29, 2008

time and death

The summons is sent to every house,
to every soul, every day it is issued.
Remember, O Nanak, the one who sends the summons.
The day is not far when you also may hear it.
(Sikh Bed-time Prayer #1)

In the Christian tradition we begin the season of Advent this week. And Advent always makes me think about time, and the strange sense of time and timelessness that it provokes. In our readings that we follow these weeks we begin the first week talking about the "end times," and then we hear about John the Baptist and meet Jesus as an adult preparing for his earthly ministry, and only after all that do we go back to the events around Jesus’ birth. It’s almost as if the church wants to throw off our sense of time completely. I think there’s reason for that.

In Christian theology, we differentiate between two different kinds of time: chronos and kairos. Chronos (as in “chronometer”) is like “clock time,” or what Eckhart Tolle calls “psychological time.” Kairos on the other hand is divine time, which of course is eternity, in a sense no time at all. St. Augustine taught that past, present and future don’t really have any kind of absolute existence. Past, present and future are just three different ways that our consciousness wraps itself around phenomena, by remembering them, by being aware of them, or by anticipating them. But none of them––past, present, or future––has any kind of absolute existence. God, on the other hand, has absolute existence; God is totally beyond what we call time, totally beyond past, present and future. And mystics would argue that consciousness itself, our own consciousness at its most sublime, is godly like that. It too shares absolute existence; it too is beyond past, present and future. There is only now in God, and ultimately there is only now for us.

Sometimes we talk about the end of the world. But, you know, I don’t think there will really be an end of the world––don’t we always pray “world without end, Amen”? No, Christian have a beautiful way of looking at creation, believing that all creation is heading toward some kind of Omega point when God will be all in all in Christ. But there will be an end of time, that is, of chronos or psychological time, and there will be the coming of kairos, the reign of eternity, the reign-of-God-time.

Cardinal Carlo Martini uses a beautiful image: he says that time is like a womb, and we are wrapped in it as “in the womb of God.” And like a mother's womb, the walls of that womb of time are porous; life flows in and flows out, that is, eternity flows in and flows out, chronos is always yielding up its solidity to kairos, which is also to say heaven is always breaking in on earth. And somehow that is what Advent is reminding us of. We keep catching glimpses of eternity, sitting silently waiting for flashes of the reign of God to burst in on our mundane affairs. The hope is that that bursting in of eternity into our clock time, that bursting of heaven into the earthly sphere, will at some point take permanent root in us, in our awareness. And then, as St. Teresa of Avila taught, all the way to heaven will be heaven. Do we not pray over and over, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth”––here, now, right at this moment––“as it is in heaven”?

In some way this is what is meant to happen in all of our prayer, in our liturgical celebrations, and especially in meditation: a little window opens up in these seemingly solid walls of time, and we enter into the stream of eternity. But I think at some point what is a passing state––an awareness of divine presence––is meant to be a permanent state, or at least a knowledge gained through experience that informs, guides and strengthens all our thoughts, words and deeds. And the walls between time and eternity begin to melt away, or we realize how porous they really are, how things slip in and out, and we do, too. As the Dhammapada teaches, Mindfulness is the path to immortality. Negligence is the path to death. The vigilant never die, whereas the negligent are the living dead. Is this why people who are ready to die are so alive?

At my funeral I want to leave instructions for the preacher not to talk about me being in a “better place” or about any kind of heaven light years away. With all the pains of life and all the salted wounds of terror and misery, still could there be a better place than here, a better time than now? The problem isn’t “here” and “now.” The problem is us, and our lack of awareness of eternity and the reign of God––that is, the Holy Spirit. I want the preacher to talk about how eternity keeps breaking in on time (all the way to heaven…), and how the veil that separates here from hereafter is so thin as to be non-existent; perhaps it is only made up of our lack of awareness.

During this Advent, let’s pray to be open to this awareness, to catch glimpses of eternity breaking in on time, so as to be ready for the definitive joining of heaven and earth––the event of Jesus, in whom the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily… In the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch: Look for the one who is outside time, the eternal one, the unseen, who became visible for us. Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done––here, now, through me––on earth as it is in heaven, world without end, Amen.