THERE IS A TIME FOR EVERYTHING, AND A SEASON FOR EVERY AFFAIR UNDER THE SUN (Qohelet 3:1). The last month or so the whole world has been very conscious of time and the revolutions of the years as we marked the new millennium, reckoning from the birth of Jesus the Messiah. This New Year Day we entered upon the 2000th year since the great revelation of the Son of God came into our world and began the final epoch of salvation history. No one has an idea as to how long this history shall unfold in time. What is clear is that it is limited; it will come to an end and culminate in a second coming of the same Lord of history. This final coming will take place in circumstances that contrast sharply with the first coming at Bethlehem. There God appeared as a helpless infant, quietly, hidden to all but a few poor pers without influence, unnoticed by the majority and the powerful, save by the Magi. Then, at the final coming he will appear in glory and power before all persons without exception, summoned from the ends of the earth, from the graves and the seas by the angels of God. St. Paul had a special revelation touching on this matter and he communicated it to the Church in Corinth.
See now, I will declare to you a mystery! All will not fall asleep but all will be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. The trumpet will sound and the dead shall rise incorruptible and we shall be changed. For it is necessary that this corruptible put on incorruption and this mortal be clothed with immortality (1Cor 15: 51- 53).
St. Peter also had been enlightened on the events at the end of time and had made known to the Churches the abrupt and overwhelming nature of the final coming in judgment.
The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night when the heaven will be rolled up as they perish, the elements will be dissolved with burning and the earth and all its works will be consumed with fire (2 Peter 3:10).
The Greek philosophers held the view that the created world was eternal; Indian philosophy too considered that after immense periods of time the material world would be consumed only to begin the process of change in a new, vast period of time endlessly. Science itself today vacillates as new data are available between the view that the cosmos will eventually collapse upon itself as it expands beyond tenable limits and the opinion that there is sufficient matter in existence to prevent such collapse. But revelation has declared unequivocally that there will be a final, abrupt end and that it will be determined, not by physical laws of gravity, but by the decree of God.
Revelation had already created a new way of experiencing time some 1800 years before St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians. The direct intervention of God in the life of Abraham, the promises he gave to him for the future raised his consciousness of time to the vision of a new future. This future would be a result of God's Providence as well as his own obedience to the word given to him. Time was more than endless repetition of the cycles of nature and of human generations; it led to a fulfillment directed by creator of the world to an end that he purposed. History moved through time in a purposeful direction that oriented the mythical so that its cycles were no longer closed in upon themselves but open out to horizons determined by God's revelation. History was unrepeatable; the events and persons moving in historical time took on a fresh significance in their own right. They partake of the dignity of the goal toward which they are moving. With the passage of the centuries the outlines of that goal became clearer. With the birth of Christ, his public ministry, his death and resurrection the details of the mysterious plan of God were revealed in their temporal features. Taken as a whole they point beyond the history of which they are the center to the transcendent world where God is all in all. In so far as the events of time, then, are inserted into the overarching purpose of the mystery of redemption in Christ, they already share proleptically, that is, in advance, in the eternal realities of God's kingdom. History thus takes its meaning from the purpose God assigns to it, and assumes a greater seriousness in that it has eternal and divine consequences.
While we remain in time, even though we are under the sway of a divine power and purpose, we best serve that high cause by respecting the intrinsic requirements of temporal existence, even while not allowing those laws to restrict our vision and determine, on their own terms, or in any final way our decisions. We continue to be participants in this world where the movement of the sun and other stars is felt as marking passing moments of the processes that constitute nature and history. We experience the need to measure those movements; our corporal constitution itself function in relation to the changes of position of earth relative to the sun. We have a diurnal rhythm that affects our physiology and our mental processes. The body functions with greater efficiency at certain hours of the day; the mind is more alert and retentive at different periods of time. The body changes in size, appearance and functioning as the years pass; we observe these changes in those around us; we experience them in ourselves. We are impressed by the fact that human life has a beginning which we see at birth and an end that we observe. These events impress upon our consciousness that human life is limited and is characterized by events of greater and lesser significance for our sense of what it means to be human.
Richard Foley, an English paleontologist maintains that a sense of time is the result of genetic codification in living beings. That means that the sense of time is different in different species. The same objective external measurement of time is experienced, according to this view, as being of longer or shorter duration depending on this ingrained perceptive sense. In fact, at different stages of our human life we ourselves experience time in a highly subjective manner; it is not perceived as an objective given, but is a qualification of our consciousness that depends on a variety of factors. Persons suffering from depression experience time as moving slowly, ponderously; the day seems endless; night when sleepless seems interminable to such persons. Children and adolescents experience a month as a long period; a year seems distant past. The elderly feel that a year or two is a short period indeed. When we are in a happy frame of mind, or absorbed in a congenial task the hours seem to fly by. Time, then, is a complex reality as we experience it, and is not only a succession of moments fixed in quantity by the movement of stars.
Humans have a profound need, nonetheless, to establish measurements for time. Designation of periods of time may in fact comprise eons, as, for example, is the case with the first page of Genesis where one day may comprise some billions of years as reckoned by paleontologists. These periods, whether marked off as days, weeks, years, centuries or millennia give meaning to life and orientation to human persons. We take for granted such measurements and treat them in our daily life, as fixed, objective realities of nature. They are, however, artifacts of culture so deeply imbedded in our consciousness as to seem inevitable. Without such temporal markers we would soon become disoriented; in fact, life would lose a great deal of its meaning. To establish fixed times is to fix our self in a relation with the world in which we live and move and think and feel.
Regular feast days, anniversaries, liturgical seasons and national holidays come to seem so natural to us precisely because they have formed us in their spirit and adapted us, naturally, as it were, to their character and requirements. Their influence is all the more efficacious for being subtle and fitting so unassumingly into the yearly cycle of life. As modern human consciousness of time expands, the celebrations of such events become more, not less, significant. As Eva Hoffman noted in a recent essay (Counting the Years to Make Sense Out Of Life, The New York Times,Sunday, December 26, 1999, The Week in Review, pp. 1 and 4) in the course of the last century we have been exposed to vast enlargements of the horizons of time on the one hand, and on the other, our knowledge of micro-measurements of time and matter has led to adaptations to processes that are measured in billionths of a second. At present there are computers that can perform a couple of billion operations in one second, for instance, and researchers are confident they will soon arrive at much faster computation; industrial processes currently operational can greatly increase efficiency of certain systems by reducing a layer of insulating material to a single atom in thickness. At the other end of the scale, a modern scholar refers to himself as "a historian of the last 200 million years." It is not easy to fit the few years of our life into such an immense framework. Thus we continue to refer to the more conventional markers of years, decades and centuries in our reflections on history. For daily life, days, weeks and months are the signposts we read most frequently in order to preserve a sense of direction and maintain continuity essential for meaning. Millennia figure in our frame of reference only exceptionally. But even though we can recognize certain patterns that allow us to make sense of events as they happen, our capacity to predict the future remains very limited and uncertain. A rather amusing demonstration of the limitations of human mastery of events even in the short term appeared in the same issue of The New York Times (p. 4). After pointing out how wrong long term predictions made in the past have turned out to be, the reporter, Jenny Lyn Bader, asked a number of experts to predict the following week's events. A police sergeant was asked: "How many people will turn up in Times Square New Year's Eve"? His reply is that of an experienced man: "We don't predict. It could snow and people could stay home."
Maintaining the meaning of any given period of time, lifting it out of the endless flow of cosmic cycles, requires occasions that serve to memorialize the various events that make up its story and which convey the values and beliefs which have contributed to constitute the community and to form the individual. In the Civil Order as well as in the Church such celebrations keep traditions alive and renew commitments to them more or less effectually depending on the quality of the celebration. For the Church the Liturgical Cycle fulfills that function for the community, at all levels of its existence, local, national, universal, and for the individual who participates in the measure of the faith and loving commitment of the participating person. In our Cistercian Order, faithful to the Rule of St. Benedict in this particular, the Liturgy has always played a prominent, even central role in forming its members according to the spirit of the Gospel. On the level of community the liturgy assures that the whole congregation remains in daily contact with the mystery of salvation in Christ as presented under its various aspects throughout the year. The specific aspect of Christ's person and teaching conveys the values according to which we are to guide our lives; our individual, personalized manner of participating in the various offices and celebrations assures that our conformity to this pattern is not superficial and exterior but heartfelt, the fruit of our own inner capacity and of our faith. The liturgy fulfills this same function for the whole Church, to be sure, in the measure that the faithful actively share in it. Our way of life makes it central. We arrange our work and our study in such a way that we conform, essentially, to the liturgical hours that sanctify the day, with night Vigils, dawn Lauds, evening Vespers and nightfall Compline. The little hours marking the beginning of morning and afternoon work and the mid-day pause for rest and dinner. Time is thus marked by praise and prayer for the monk and the other activities of the day are scheduled in relation to these liturgical markers as well as in function of their own requirements.
The liturgy assures that our life and formation include the principle of order, so important in the Benedictine and Cistercian spiritualities. St. Bernard gave a particular prominence to the concern for order which assured the proper relationship of the whole and of the individual cf. Charles Dumont, Pathway of Peace, 39 ff. whom I follow in this paragraph.) Unity and harmony, so fundamental for any happy human community and a chief characteristic of Christ's Church, are the result of a healthy order in life. In the soul of each individual there are the fluctuations of moods of exaltation and of despondency that are associated with time as well as with other variables. Bernard was particularly subject to these ups and downs and often refers to the need to bring them into an orderly relation with our duties and relationships with others. One of his oft cited verses from Scripture expressed this feature of time-bound life. " Everything has been established with number, weight and measure (Wisdom 11:21)." Bernard felt the burden of these limitations for they conflicted with the vision of the world where God alone was the measure of all. He sought to transcend this world where the fluctuations of time and events impinged upon the spirit, depressing its thoughts and deflecting its desires from the vision of eternal beauty that is God.
My spirit is moved within me, in that it sighs after that home land in which there is neither number nor measure nor weight. How long will I receive the good things of body and soul in weight and measure and number? How many hired workers there are in my Father's house who abound in bread while I perish from hunger.... O Jerusalem, city of the great King, who fills you with the best of wheat, how much you rejoice at the flow of the river! In you there is no weight nor measure but only satiety and that in overflowing abundance... when shall I be satisfied with the appearance of your glory, O Lord (Sermo 1.3 in Septuagesima.PL 183:164)?
It was this longing for the final fulfillment that would be achieved by the coming of Christ to restore all things in the house of the Father that for Bernard and our Cistercian forebears gave meaning to the vicissitudes and vagaries of time in this world.a This contemplative vision of the end time which opens into the infinite love and beauty of the glory of God is the true center of the cosmos which alone gives it the meaning and purpose suited to the spirit of man. It is our heritage as Cistercian monks to build our lives from this center and to found a community where this vision orients and controls our days and weeks and years. So long as we live according to this pattern we shall be contribution to the good of all who come to us, and indeed, of all God's creatures on this earth. For in his eternal wisdom the Father has chosen to extend salvation to all through the witness of those whom he has chosen in his beloved son, Jesus Christ, our Savior.