As I prepared for my first confession some years ago, I was given a rubric that I still follow. It asks me to reflect on how I’ve sinned against myself, others, and God. If nothing comes to mind, I’m directed to consider the ways I’ve fallen short of the ten commandments, the beatitudes, the virtues enumerated in the Prayer of St. Ephrem, etc.
As helpful as these guides are, however, they risk overlooking a quintessential dimension of life: the experience of time. Like the beatitudes or ten commandments, thinking about the ways we use and misuse time provides an additional lens to perceive our struggle against the passions.
In my experience, this lens is extremely helpful. We can immediately identify with the grief of a wasted hour, day, or lifetime, even when we are too out of touch to grieve other aspects of our sinful condition.
Personally, I have found it beneficial to consider my interaction with time parallel to the rubric I’ve mentioned above: How have I wasted or misused time in relation to myself, to others, and to God?
How have I wasted time in relation to myself? Of course, there are the obvious items on the list: the projects we procrastinate for no reason, the sleep and exercise we put off to our peril, the evenings spent vegging out on Netflix instead of doing something “better” or “more productive” with our time.
These are low-hanging fruit. After that, things get more complicated, largely because we tend to have vague and half-formed concepts of what it even means to do something “better” with our time. For example: Should I read more books instead of watching Netflix? Maybe, but reading in itself will not make me more virtuous or holy. An avid bibliophile myself, I easily get so caught up in reading material that I almost dissociate from reality and relationships. Reading time becomes MY time—to check out, to indulge, to wrap my interpersonal universe around my little finger of control. (Can’t they see I’m reading?! I wonder when others insist on needing something when I’ve obviously got a book in my hand.)
We all have our “my time” moments and activities. What drives them? What’s really pulling us toward that book or show or drink or club?
A Time for Others
Things become particularly sobering when we shift our focus from ourselves to other people. How have we wasted the time we’ve been given to encounter and love our fellow man? Relatedly: How have I wasted others’ time for my own gain?
Hopefully, this question steers our minds not only to the ways we waste time with loved ones but also with strangers, interactions we easily forget with people whose grudges against our rudeness will not tangibly impact our lives (because we’re unlikely to cross paths with them again). How many moments have we squandered in frustration or earbud-wearing mindlessness while standing in line at the grocery store or waiting for an elevator? How many times have we drained our times of potential by abandoning concern for our neighbor, even in the seemingly meaningless exchanges of everyday life and errands? I shudder as I even write those questions—I don’t want to know the answer for myself. And that’s a problem.
A Time for God
Given our capacity to “waste” time in relation to fellow humans whom we can see and hear, it’s unlikely we’re putting in a temporal effort when it comes to our relationship with Christ. In bringing this up, I do not wish to imply that our relationship with Him should be compartmentalized to an item on our to-do lists. (More on that in a moment.)
Here as elsewhere, it’s important to consider both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of time. When it comes to prayer, it’s tempting to over-focus on the latter. We convince ourselves that it doesn’t matter how many minutes we spend in prayer, as long as we are really sincere during those minutes.
There is some truth to that sentiment, especially for folks dealing with life situations that preclude them from spending regular or extended time in prayer. But most of us need the doing of prayer to get to the being of prayer—we need some quantity to get us to the quality.
Assuming we have a modest and manageable rule of prayer, we need to remember that the quantitative amount of time we spend in prayer is not just an arbitrary number—those minutes are an expression of an authentic desire to draw closer to God. Conversely, to truncate or forsake those times and minutes is to express avoidance and rejection of Christ. (Note: I am talking about times we willingly and consciously disregard prayer, not when life circumstances make prayer truly difficult.)
To conclude, these questions about time help to achieve two important things.
First, they bring into focus certain aspects of our spiritual formation that may otherwise remain blurry. We begin to recognize within ourselves the same old passions the Fathers have been warning us of for nearly two millennia—wrath, gluttony, self-focus, pride, vainglory, and all the rest. On a personal note, these “timely questions” have helped sharpen my awareness of the passion of despondency (acedia), characterized by symptoms like boredom and restlessness. My recent book, Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, traces this process of awareness and explores despondency from the vantage point of time and the Resurrection.
Second and finally, focusing on time helps us remember that repenting—i.e. turning back toward God—begins on a small scale, the scale of moments and minutes. It starts with “gathering the crumbs” of lost time (to borrow a phrase from Met. Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh) and trying, even for very brief periods, to recover our capacity to be—with others, ourselves, and slowly with God.