Experiential Time, Part 2

Experiential Time, Part 2

“…only the present is eternal and…all things having a past and a future are doomed to pass away!”

Thomas Merton[1]

An experiential accounting of time does not follow the familiar chronological conceptions of time that repeat in circular cycles, as with a clock, or in linear perpetuity, as with a timeline. Our important life-experiences do not unfold sequentially in clock or calendar time, nor does the meaning or significance of those experiences reveal itself to us in a linear fashion. In fact, the experiences that most reveal who we are at our core seldom, if ever, occur chronologically. Chronological time, for all its earthly utility, is not only unhelpful in engaging such key questions as Who am I?  and Why am I here? and What is the meaning of life?, but it also creates an obstacle to such explorations. It gives us too narrow a view and too small a perspective on our life-experiences. This is especially true as we consider concepts of eternity and eternal life. And yet it is difficult to think outside of our chronological models of time when seemingly everything about our lives on earth is understood in terms of the relentless, orderly movements of the clock and calendar.

Time is considered the fourth dimension of our earthly experience. Our physical senses record encounters of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch at specific moments within the limits of 3-dimensional space defined by height, width, and depth. But our 3-dimensional experience is not stagnant. It is forever moving, changing, and evolving, and that movement occurs in the dimension of time. In our construct of chronological time we experience parts or stages of the consummation of a larger whole, yet the larger whole is imperceptible within the limits of time-and-space understanding. To illustrate the consummation of a 3-dimensional reality in time, imagine a person born in 1993. In order to experience that being as a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual 30-year-old person, we would have to wait until 2023, even though all of the necessary internal and environmental elements that would determine the nature of the 30-year-old person were present at their birth. In that sense, the consummated 30-year-old was a reality at birth.

In fact, all of the necessary internal elements for the completion of this person at 30 years old were present prior to their birth. The genetic material that would form this being, or the potential for that material, was present in their biological parents, which formed from the genetic materials of their biological grandparents, and so on as far back in history as one cares to go. It is the same for the external, environmental conditions that also helped shape the nature of the person at 30. All of the external elements required to form the 30-year-old person as they manifested in 2023 were present as far back in history as one cares to venture. Thus, we can say that the genesis for and completion of this 30-year-old person date to the origins of the universe, even though we can only witness the completed, 3-dimensional manifestation in chronological time.

Let’s extend the exercise to say this person lives to be 90. Thus, the consummation of the 90-year-old version of this being would not be evident to earthly observers until 2083, even though all of the elements required for that being are present today, as they have been from the beginning of time. As such, the internal (genetic) and external (environmental) elements required to manifest in this 90-year-old life exist in eternity. The specific manifestation of a 30- or 90-year-old being in earth-time is only a portion or a snapshot of a much larger reality, however, and not the fully-matured being that exists in eternity.

Chronological time is misleading because it concludes that the completion or maturation of our being occurs somewhere beyond where we are today, to the right of today on a timeline. It is a moving target with no end-point – a shore that is no shore, as I have heard it described. In reality, everything required for the consummation of all created things, ourselves included, is here in every moment, in every situation, as it always has been. In that sense, the consummation has already occurred. It exists in perpetuity, in eternity. Oneness with God, which is how I define our ultimate consummation as human beings, is not something we will find in the far reaches of a chronological timeline or by any number of cycles around a clock. Our completion is present now, as it always has been. We simply are not consciously aware of it. Our challenge is not to grow along a chronological timeline but to experience the eternity of our completion or perfection by embracing and exploring its details in time. 

This is the 3rd in a series of Life Notes on time and eternity. The opinions expressed here are mine and not necessarily those of others. To engage with me or to explore contemplative spiritual direction, contact me at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com.

[1] Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, Harcourt Inc., 1953, p. 356.

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