Maybe it’s the beginning of a new year and all those resolutions that bring my friends, and myself, to reconsider how we use our time. We resolve to use it better: spend wisely, save time, never waste it. We are limited; time is limited. We agree: with time at our disposal, we should make the best of these limits.
It sounds reasonable, and this is how I behave, consciously or habitually, most often.
Enter Hans Urs von Balthazar, German theologian-poet. He disagrees with me. “Time is the school of exuberance, the school of magnanimity,” he counters.
“You cannot draw the river onto the dry bank, there to trap its imperative to flow,” he continues. Time is movement, so it is a river pushing us onward. We cannot trap Time any more than we can pull a river onto the land and capture it. Instead, like we embrace the movement of the river, we embrace the movement of Time, and through this Time teaches us generosity and the exuberant joy of giving.
Sure, just as delusional miser with his possessions, we can attempt to control Time: “The greedy among them have launched many projects: they have thrown rocks into the water in order to dam up the streams: in their systems, they contrived to invent an Isle of Eternity. . . so as to catch eternity in the trap of one blissful Now.”
Nonetheless, Time will undo our plans. The things that we cling to – health, possessions, security, are not safe from the actions of Time. This striking fact, a fact I often subconsciously ignore, is poignantly illustrated in the photographs of my family. Before she died, I knew my great-grandmother well, yet, when I look at photographs of her from her youth, her entire life is gone. The people, places, clothing, even the features of her face have been worn away –many of these things gone even by the time I knew her. Our lives are a testament to the almost imperceptible, yet relentless, push of Time.
At this point it is easy to see Time as an efficient Teacher and nothing more. Alright, I get it. Since Time forces me, ultimately, to let go, I may as well do it now. But this is not Von Balthazar’s belief. His reflection on Time from his work “Heart of the World” reads more like a celebration than bitter acceptance. How? In the reality of Time, Von Balthazar sees something else: Love.
“Time is existence flowing on: love is life that pours itself forth.” Time will eventually leave us “dispossessed” and “defenseless,” but “love dispossesses itself and willingly allows it to be disarmed.” In the renunciation that Time requires, Von Balthazar sees a renunciation that our hearts long for, the giving of ourselves to another in Love. This is why he calls Time not just the school of “exuberance” and “magnanimity,” but “the grand school of love.”
Remember the river metaphor from earlier? Von Balthazar compares Time to a river because we cannot trap it. He also uses the river metaphor to remind us that this River of Time is not something we observe from the shore; it isn’t even something that carries us along “like a drifting log.” It is something inside us: “You yourself are in the flow. You are the river.”
Why is this important? Well, because Time is the “ground of our existence” and Time and Love are related, then “the ground of our existence is love.” Longing for a renunciation of self that is Love and living in a renunciation of existence that is Time are two inexplicably linked facts.
These reflections are certainly beautiful and theologically rich. They provide a fresh understanding of Time and Love, two things simultaneously sublime and every day. Nevertheless, how does this fresh understanding affect me in my every day? How does it change those resolutions I mentioned earlier to use my time better?
When Von Balthazar writes of the people attempting to control Time, I see myself: my frustration when my little daily checklist is interrupted, my worry over the future. I hear his words about wanting to “catch eternity in the trap of one blissful Now,” and I realize that this obsession is my effort to achieve eternity here, on earth.
I realize that I long for stability and perfection, so I attempt to achieve both in this world. Von Balthazar anticipates this longing. He writes, “Perfection lies in the fullness of journey. For this reason, never think you have arrived.”
Never think you have arrived. What does this mean? It changes the way I view Time, from big picture thoughts about existence and death and my great-grandma’s face a lifetime ago, but it also changes my daily life, including the way I make resolutions. I cannot control Time and carve out my own little perfection in this life. I have not arrived. I can work joyfully with the Time I have, but it isn’t my own Time, and I “have” it only to give it away.
I also know that I don’t want to forget my longing for perfection and eternity, even for the way in which I get distracted and try to make “one blissful Now.” Why? Because “infinite good can be detected in the finite good: the promise of greater things.” Time is a finite good that teaches me exuberance and love. When I struggle against its limits because I long for something more, it teaches me then as well: I was not made simply to struggle against Time and be ultimately defeated. No, my rebellion against Time teaches me that Time itself is a shadow of something greater: eternity.