In Lewis Carroll’s classic, Alice in Wonderland, our heroine attends a Mad Hatter’s tea party. During their conversation, the Hatter declares that he doesn’t believe Alice has ever spoken to his friend Time.
‘Perhaps not,’ Alice cautiously replied: ‘but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.’
‘Ah! that accounts for it,’ said the Hatter. ‘He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock. For instance, suppose it were nine o’clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons: you’d only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!’
Time – and humanity’s attempt to resist or control it – has been a common theme in fiction. We think of Goethe’s Faust, Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Time travel is a favourite sci-fi theme in stories like H G Wells’ The Time Machine and Philip Dick’s Paycheck, the BBC TV series Dr Who or, more light-heartedly, the Back to the Future movies.
Of course, this fascination is no monopoly of novels and movies: puzzling about the meaning of past, present and future, fascination with the logic and science of time and its interaction with space, causation and action, dreams of decelerating, reversing or commanding time – all are recurring themes in history and culture.
The Mad Hatter speaks to a desire we’ve all felt: who wouldn’t like to rewind and correct some past blunder or fast forward past a tedious meeting or two to something more enjoyable beyond?
When we are young or bored time seems to pass slowly; Christmas with its holidays and presents seems for ever away…
Then as teenagers we discover a new anxiety: that if we invest our time in this, we will miss out on doing that; that if we focus just on the task before us, we might miss some Pokémon nearby.
As a result, many young adults diffuse their attention across multiple screens at once or procrastinate indefinitely. Some won’t even commit to attending something they’d love for fear a better event might come along.
As we get older again, time seems to speed up; Christmas seems to come sooner each year. And so we begin to fear not just that we are wasting time, but that we are losing it; we’ve only got so much left and must make every minute count; everything is urgent at work, on the email or on the roads. Indeed, the pace of life in our cities and cultures seems to be ever accelerating and we are left with very little ‘time to ourselves’.
Whatever our stage of life, anxieties about time can leave us paralysed to choose, to commit, to act.
And that means we do in fact run out of time; opportunities to pursue truth, beauty and goodness pass us by; we fail to respond to what is truly urgent with exigency and waste our time on trivia.
Christ comes to save us from many things – from sin, sickness, ignorance, loneliness and despair, from every temporary hell in this life and eternal hell in the next.
And one of those things from which Christ saves us is from a wrong relationship to time, from anxieties about too much and too little, too fast and too slow.
When the apostles asked Him “when Lord?” Jesus was generally evasive. Don’t focus on when so much as what and how, He’d say. Don’t angst about what you did yesterday: repent and you can start again. Don’t fret about tomorrow, focus on the challenges of today. Don’t fuss about when the burglar might break in or the end of the world come: stand ready now, but with optimism about the Son of Man’s return (Lk 12:32-48).
God’s sense of time, then, is rather different to ours: some theologians have described God as ‘outside of time’ or as living in ‘the eternal now’ of past, present and future at once.
St Bernard of Clairvaux dared compare God with “one returning from a wedding, inebriated with the wine of love”, not worrying about time the way we do or judging success or failure as we might.
But what bearing might this divine time have on us, on the lives of beings very much embroiled in the world of space and time?
“Listen and be brave!” Pope Francis told young people at the recent World Youth Day, as indeed he’s said before. “Have you sometimes heard the voice of the Lord through a desire, a restlessness, inviting you to follow Him more closely? Ask Jesus what He wants from you and be brave!”
The Holy Father is, of course, echoing texts like St Paul’s letter to the Hebrews which exhorts us to have the courage to leave the familiar and step out like Abraham and Sarah into an uncertain future (Heb 11:1-19).
Better than Abraham and Sarah, we know that all time is in the hands of the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, someone both within time and transcending time, both the Lord of history but also our brother in history, Jesus Christ.
And so, as Pope Francis said in his first encyclical, faith doesn’t leave us all at sea, drowning in uncertainty with nothing solid to hold onto. No, “faith opens the way before us and accompanies our steps through time” (Lumen Fidei, No.9).
So you might say faith is our divine compass through space, our divine clock through time, our ability to touch yesterday, today and forever here and now, and so be ever-patient and ever-urgent, always-contemplative and always-active, “like men with their hearts in the right place… dressed for action… yet waiting” (Lk 12:32-48).
Faith is how we stop trying to beat time, like poor Alice, and make our peace with Time. In place of our anxieties, Christ puts faith; in place of fatalism, hope; instead of indecision, He enables us to commit; He dissolves our paralysis with the grace to act.
The superstitious and the fatalistic become slaves of time, of imagined coincidence and destiny. The scientific materialist and sci-fi fantasist become ‘time lords’, as if immune to cause-and-effect, change and decay, temporality and chronology.
But Christians truly master time only by handing it over to the Lord of all time and space – and all that is beyond time and space.
We act with a prudent sense of what is urgent, what a priority and what can be left for now, with a quiet confidence in Providence.
We hand our life-span over to the One who said “Fear not, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to share with you His kingdom!”