Give us Time

Thoughts on the Gospel
for the Thirty-First Sunday
in Ordinary Time

Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth. But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.

Wisdom 11:23

Give us Time:

In the beginning of the creation of this earth God made the gift of time, for He made the lights of heaven to mark the seasons and the days and the years (Genesis 1:14). Early the Church rejected the speculation of the great doctor Origen that time was the result of the fall from a perfect and timeless world. True, God’s first-created angels were made without a moral sense of time; they exist and existed eternally, unendingly or timefully, existentially as we might say, and their souls are fixed soon after their creation by their decision either to serve God or to rebel. Angels have only that one choice. Moral development through time belongs to mankind and is the only arena in which progress of eternal significance can be made. Cell phones and computers will one day be where the smart inventions of Tyre and Carthage are now to be found, in the dust, but our souls, although marked by an openness to evil that afflicts everyman, once created, are eternal and are made for happiness in God’s presence. 

So we are told in the Book of Wisdom that God “overlooks peoples” sins that they may repent. In Second Peter the eschatological anxiety of the early Church was resolved by Peter’s assurance that the return of Christ in judgement and glory was delayed because God “is giving you more time because His will is that all of you should attain repentance” (2 Peter 4:5).

The first and most obvious purpose for which we are given time is our duty to exercise just dominion over creation, a mandate given us in Genesis (1:22–30), which is taken to mean more than tiling the earth and incudes every human action that exists for the good of mankind, from the formation and care of families in households to the spiritual nurturing of children, from the practice of medicine and law to the ability to repair a broken valve or computer. Yet our just care for the world of nature and man presupposes something greater and deeper, the care of the soul, with every soul being in process toward holiness, or not.

It is not the teaching of the Church that once we have experienced God’s grace we are out of the battle between the Holy Spirit and the Other Side. Rather life is a struggle in a world in which the dragon always lurks beside the road of life, his venom sometimes finding its mark in those capable of good works and great devotion, whose only hope is repentance and the rebuilding of the devoted life, which takes time.

For most Christians most of the time, although there may be dramatic moments in which grace floods the soul, holiness, achieved to whatever degree, is a work of time, involving failures, repentances, and the work of regaining the fruits of grace. This means that patience, a word related to the Latin patior, “suffering” or “enduring,” is the essential virtue as souls make their way through time. The false expectation is that there will come a day when, if not perfection, surelycontentment in grace will have settled on the soul. And there are those moments. But like moments of disappointment and near despair they are transitory. C. S. Lewis in Screwtape Letters described what he called the law of undulation, the nearly universal pattern within which some temporary triumph over sinful inclinations may be followed by defeat at the hands of our own fallen nature. The Devil will always encourage wickedness, but as the apostle James wrote our failures are our own (1:13–16), and overcoming them is a work of time and of discipline. Despair at our own weakness is as fatal as is the presumptuous belief that we are good enough just as we are. And this is why courage ranks high in the catalog of virtues. It is easy to give up, more difficult to trust the good will and generous help of Christ and His Holy Spirit. And there is this. Masters of the spiritual life almost uniformly insist that our sins are given us by God, back-handed blessings as it were, with the purpose that we should not rely on ourselves but on the mercy and power of God. The battle is wearing on souls in formation. This is that part of the Good News that is really bad news for those who would practice lives of devotion in five easy steps. There are no easy steps. It was Mother Theresa who toward the end of her life remarked that she had seldom been granted the spiritual consolations that usually are associated with such lives of heroic devotion as hers. Ignatius of Antioch, having spent a lifetime in service to Christ and His Church, wrote when his martyrdom was imminent. “Now I begin to be a disciple… Let fire and cross, flocks of beasts, broken bones, dismemberment… come upon me, so long as I attain to Jesus Christ.”

These had borne the cross faithfully and patiently for a lifetime. They had used the gift well, to grow in love and fidelity until they were ready to see God. Time is like money in at least one way: both can be spent. And how time is spent determines the character of our Christian profession, for being a Christian takes time. It takes time to attend to Sunday duties, and more time if we are to pursue works of charity on behalf of others. Other people, if one is trying to be a Christian, take time. Our nearest relations, our wives or children, may be longing anxiously for us to give them time. And then there is the time spent in prayer, time that to the still imperfect seems a waste of time when some other duties presses. It is in fact time best spent, for putting oneself in the presence of God is the most essential action of souls who would be saints, being as it ispractice for the life of glory. Why, if we cannot give ten minutes to the contemplation of God in this life, should we think we would be happy in the land in which, whatever other gifts may be granted, the measure of happiness is the presence of God? 

Perhaps the most common mistake is the belief that our time is ours when every moment is a gift of God, His to bestow as He wills and as long as He wills. This is why the apostle warns us against any plan that confidently asserts our possession of our time while neglecting conscious reliance on God’s blessing. “Come now, you who say, ‘today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain,’ whereas you do not know about tomorrow.What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and shall do this or that” (James 4:13–16).

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