Fullness of Time

May 15, 2024

"Flyaway Hair" by Eric Rennie (2013)

English has only one word for time, plus many words for the increments thereof (hour, day, year).  The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos for time we can keep track of with a clock or calendar and kairos for what the poet William Blake once characterized as “eternity in an hour” — time that we lose track of altogether. It is this seeming paradox of timeless time that marks every manifestation of the divine.           

We are now so steeped in a sequential understanding of time that it may come as a surprise that it wasn’t always this way.  Indeed, as developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and others have documented, a child’s basic concept of time — chronos time — is not innate but is learned through his or her interactions with the world.  A small child only gradually comes to understand there is any other time besides right now.  My then 2-1/2-year-old granddaughter, for example, learned to calibrate the passage of days as the number of “sleeps” — as in, “Grandma and Papa are coming to visit in two more sleeps.”  

As it happens, aborigines in central Australia also mark time in “sleeps”; they say they will return to a place after so many sleeps, or nights.  The language of the Amazonian Amondawa tribe, which had no contact with the outside world prior to 1986, includes no words for time or increments of time, such as “month” or “year.”  Hunter-gatherer tribes generally might be aware of seasonal changes but, unlike sedentary farmers, they are not involved with annual cycles of planting and harvesting.  They therefore have no need to mark time in longer increments.

When our early ancestors needed to keep track of human activity beyond a single day, they looked to the night sky.  Neolithic bone carvings and cave art appear to show the waxing and waning of the moon in what may be the first primitive calendars that could be used for annual cycles of planting and harvesting.  Ancient civilizations — among them the Mayans, Babylonians and Greeks — were careful observers of heavenly bodies and developed methods for predicting solar and lunar eclipses.    

The invention of sundials and water clocks enabled the ancients to divide the days into hours.  This was often viewed as a mixed blessing by those who found their lives were no longer regulated by the sun but instead by these implacable man-made devices. In a speech attributed to the Roman playwright Plautus, a character exclaims, “The gods damn that man who first discovered the hours, and— yes— who first set up a sundial here, who’s smashed the day into bits for poor me!”

The progress of chronos time from then until now has mostly been one of smashing the day into smaller and smaller bits.  Hours became minutes became seconds became nanoseconds  — each step made possible by advances in technology.  Medieval monks invented mechanical clocks because they needed a way to keep track of time in order to pray before the sun came up. Clocks were soon installed in bell towers to regulate the commercial life in the towns. Then railroad conductors and shop foremen began carrying pocket watches to keep things running on time. The technologist Lewis Mumford wrote that “the clock, not the steam-engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age.” He noted that “time-keeping passed into time-serving and time-accounting and time-rationing.” Consequently, Mumford said, “Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions.” 

We are so steeped in chronos time that we can only understand eternity as unending clock time.  But we are now in the realm of kairos time, which is calibrated not in hours or seconds or nanoseconds but in moments.  A moment, by definition, has no duration; it may last seconds or even hours, as such things are reckoned by the clock.  It is a moment in which we lose track of time altogether.  It is time as a small child understands it, a kind of unending now.   

Kairos has its root in the ancient Greek word for the exact right moment in which an archer releases his arrow in order to find its target.  Similarly, photographers like me refer to the “decisive moment” in capturing reality on the fly.  An example would be my image above, taken of my then seven-year-old granddaughter Alex and a friend at a playground in Brooklyn.  There is no way you can pose such a picture.  It's like stalking wildlife in their native habitat.  You've got to track your prey and hope you catch them at just the right moment -- a matter of dumb luck much of the time,

Even though the camera’s exposure settings are precisely calibrated in seconds or fractions a second, the actual taking of a picture is done in kairos time. The iconic street photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who coined the term “decisive moment,” noted, “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”  In that moment, which the photographer Walker Evans referred to as a “flash of mind,” color, form, texture, light and shadow come together just so to capture the image.  Click!  If everything goes just so, you have succeeded in putting a frame around a small moment of kairos time. 

To retrace our steps to when chronos time first gained traction in the realm of kairos time, it was when medieval monks began using mechanical clocks to wake up in the predawn hours to pray.  The irony is that they did this to sanctify time.  Western religions have long sought to sanctify time by setting aside specified periods for prayer.· This began with the Jewish Sabbath on the seventh day of each week to observe the day on which the Lord rested from his labors in creating the world.  Priests in the temple were also commanded to make ritual sacrifices each morning and evening, which evolved into offering prayers at set times every day. These practices were incorporated into the early life of the Christian church and later developed by monastic orders into an elaborate round of daily prayers known as the canonical hours.

In sanctifying our hours and days, by whatever means, we are anchoring time in the still wider framework of eternity.  Eternity is not so much timelessness but rather the still space in which time is contained, along with everything that transpires in time.  The canonical hours are an invitation to plant oneself in this wider space, to be reminded that we are in the world but not of it.  Eternity is not grasped in the passage of time but in a single moment that opens before us like a revelation.  There is no longer past or future, but only right now, and the realization that “right now” is all there is.

 

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