Daylight Savings Time Ends
In most of the United States, in many parts of Europe, and in a few countries scattered throughout the rest of the world, Daylight Saving time has already ended or will end soon. It being fall, we turn the clocks backward and gain an hour, which is something to savor. Who doesn’t appreciate more time to sleep or party or meditate? If spring eventually brings Daylight Saving time around again, snatching that hour from us, we don’t have to think about that right now.
Nonetheless, I’m not thrilled about this time change. I enjoy the dark mornings that encourage me to sleep in, and I love walking my dog in the shelter of shadows that spread across the sidewalk. There is something sacred in the quiet of the morning, something almost timeless in the dark stillness.
Then comes Daylight Saving time to disturb me with its arbitrary shifting of clock hands. What madness induced us to label one moment 2 am, then call the next hour 2 am, as well? We humans seem to feel we can manipulate time as easily as we manipulate clay or electrical currents or a sewing machine. In a mechanistic view of the universe, time is simply one more element to break down into parts and to tame.
The Illusion of Time
But what if time were an illusion?
This is hardly a new idea. The Hindu teacher Shankhya, for instance, believed that our minds perceive reality as discrete units of “time-consciousness” that he called “ksanas.” These allow us to construct a continuous narrative of our lives grounded in a notion of past and future. This creates a sense of continuity, which feels good, but isn’t real. Like many Eastern thinkers, Shankhya encouraged the practice of meditation which can open us up to an experience of timelessness. 
Saint Augustine did not deny that time includes a past, present, and future, but he contrasted that understanding with the eternal timelessness of God’s realm where past and future do not exist. Yet because we conceive of our lives within a world of memory, which necessitates a conception of time, we are alienated from the God who lives outside time. 
That Blissful Now
That doesn’t mean we can’t know God. Mystics teach us that when, though our spiritual practices, we experience the eternal oneness of everything, we are experiencing God. Time shatters, and we suddenly realize that our understanding of life as involving separate and consecutive moments does not accurately represent reality. 
Along with experiencing this ecstatic state of oneness with God through various individual practices, we can leave the mundane world of time through communal worship and the evocation of sacred space. Ritual, singing, incense, prayer, dance, mystery, and liturgy all create a sense that time is standing still. When we allow ourselves to fall into the sacredness of such a moment, “the experience becomes a window into heaven.”  In this heaven lies the eternal “now.”
Eternity is Forever
The other day, I visited a patient who told me about a time when she got so sick, she sank into a coma. After a few days, the medical team told her brother she was unlikely to recover, so he agreed to have her taken off life support. The family expected her to die, but she did not. In fact, she recovered completely. They called it a miracle, and because of it, her niece started to believe in God, by which the patient meant a traditional, Christian God.
The patient was grateful to have been so sick, for her experience brought her niece into the faith. According to her religious understanding, by dying and coming back to life, she thus saved one person’s soul. If by going through that experience again, she could save another soul from eternal fire, she would do it in a heartbeat, because “eternity isn’t just for a little while,” she told me. “It’s forever.”
How can we conceive of forever? The foreverness of eternity is so immense it dwarfs the universe until the entirety of space seems no larger than the head of a pin, yet even then, time will not have come close to the limits of its existence. Our rational minds cannot fathom that. Time may be an illusion, but we are bound by it and cannot see beyond it, except perhaps by entering that liminal space of worship or by embracing spiritual practices and exercises developed over millennia by ancestors who longed to free themselves from the trap of time.
We all experience some moments of freedom from time. For a few moments or even an hour, we may be rapt by the creation of song or poetry, by an immersion in the sounds and smells of a river, by the awe of an infant and the beauty of a Gregorian chant. Yet these moments do not last. Eventually, we come back to ourselves and our world, and notice that the hands of the clock hands have sped past, hurtling lickety-split into a future that is now our present and then our past. Time will have slipped through our fingers. We will be late for an appointment, or we will look at our list of things to do that day and realize we cannot accomplish even half of them.
Yet surely the point of our lives is not to finish tasks, or even build cathedrals or write books. Surely the point of our lives is to be who we are and love whom we love.
Even so, I dream of having more time. How can I squeeze extra hours into a day? Surely, if time is an illusion, I can stretch it at will. If eternity is in a blade of grass, then I should be able to get my chores done. Some people would foolishly suggest I trim my list of tasks, but that does not satisfy me. Surely I am not the only person in the world who wants to do it all. Special relativity and quantum physics may reveal that time and space are not what we think they are, but our bodies are too big to speed along like light. We live in a Newtonian world, limited by the relentless progression of time, and I do not like it.
Of course, for some people, time moves too slowly. Perhaps they are sick, or lonely, or depressed. They might not have enough energy to fill their moments with activity, so they may get bored. Some patients I talk with say they would prefer to die than live in this embodied world any longer. Most who say this expect that if they do let go of life, they will end up in heaven.
But what is heaven, and what is hell?
The Idea of Heaven
This is one of the questions I was pondering with a patient who was trying to make sense of scriptural references, of what he had been told as a child and had heard in his Pentecostal church. To try and figure it out, he chose to ask me about heaven and hell, as if I could know any more than he. I tried to avoid answering his questions, but he would not have it. He insisted he wanted guidance. At last, I told him I didn’t believe in hell. All of us, I said, would end up in heaven.
That was inconceivable to him. Unable to believe I understood what I was saying, he cataloged the horrors of the Holocaust. When this did not change my mind, he quoted passages in the Bible that talked about hell. This did not move me, either, for as I reminded him, scripture can be interpreted in many different ways.
For a moment, his world rocked. How could a minister think Hitler was going to heaven? The possibility was too shattering for him. He couldn’t accept it. When I refused to believe what he believed, he didn’t think he could accept me any longer.
I pointed out that I was but one person. All I could do was make a guess based on what I read, heard, and experienced. I might even be wrong, I admitted, so he should not risk his salvation because of what I believed.
This helped, but did not satisfy. He wanted surety. He wanted one, definitive truth.
Truth and Eternity
Who knows the truth about heaven and hell, or about eternity?
Mystics and sages claim to. Theologians and philosophers, shamans and wise women, yogis and boddhisatvas, all offer teachings about ultimate reality. The first patient I mentioned was just as certain of her truth as was the yogi, Shankhya, believing as she did that a faith in Christ was necessary before one could enter heaven. Although she did not want to die, she was looking forward to joining deceased loved ones in this place where her soul would live forever, and she was convinced that this reality awaited her one day.
Like her, my older son has said that he would like to live forever. Not in some after-death plane, but in this Newtonian world we inhabit now. He believes science will one day make that possible for us. To never die may seem like a good idea to a healthy, young man with a multitude of plans and dreams and goals. As we age, though, and our bodies start to remind us that we are frail and finite, this idea of living forever is less appealing. Although medical advances might give us bionic limbs that feel no pain, eternal embodiment is likely to become boring. How many careers can we pursue, or beaches can we lie on, or infinitely-great grandchildren can we welcome without feeling at least some tedium? Bliss feels blissful because it is special.
Longing for Heaven
When patients, most of whom are Christian, talk to me about heaven, they describe the joy of reuniting with loved ones, the awe of seeing streets of gold, the wonder of being in God’s presence, the delight of holding Jesus’s hand. Few seem to think beyond this initial welcome. They don’t consider the oceans of days that will spread before them.
But why worry about that now? All we know of life is what we see. Time may be cyclical, it may be linear, it may be an illusion. If we were enlightened, maybe we’d understand that eternity really does exist in a blade of grass, that this moment in which you are reading these words holds within it all the other moments that exist inside and outside of time. When we slip into a liturgical time of sacred worship, we might experience godness or holiness or endlesseness, at least for a moment. Perhaps that experience will be enough to each us that it doesn’t really matter how we interpret the Bible, or translate the babbling of the person speaking in tongues, or talk to angels. What matters is how we talk to one another and how we treat the stranger.
Time is the container in which we move. We manipulate it and we defy it, but it remains what it is. Either it has an existence or it does not.
Yet being human, we cannot live our lives without some constraint. When the light rises, we call it day; when it fades and shadows fall, we call it night. Planets circle the sun; the moon circles us. From this observation of our environment, we create separations of month and year, on into infinity.
How do we navigate this thing we call time?
I don’t know. Time and I have not made peace. Resentful of its galloping pace, I nonetheless try to stuff it full of projects, to enrich it with sweet hours of pondering and wandering, and to spend days among those I love. Yet no matter how fast I run to keep up, I leave a multitude of unfinished tasks in my wake.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that individual beings come to life when conditions are right and fade away when they are no longer right. When we come into existence, we become embodied within time; when we cease to exist, we enter that timeless realm we call eternity, that forever space where heaven and hell either exist or don’t, where angels may fly, and where souls are saved or not. In the end, it is our being that counts, not our doing.
Being rather then Doing
If I can figure that out, if I can settle into a being that supersedes all doing, then perhaps I will know what angels are, where heaven and hell reside. I will complete my tasks or not, and it won’t matter. Soon, Daylight Saving’s time will arrive. On that day, my Newtonian hands will turn the clocks back one hour, for I want to get to work on time and be part of a community that has reached a nominal agreement about how the moments tick past and become days and months and centuries.
Yet I don’t have to let this define me, for if I can find my way to enter into the bliss of being and unbeing, I will escape the confines of time and be free.
In faith and fondness,
- Achtner, Wolfgang, “The Timelessness of Eternity from a Neuroscientific and Trinitarian Perspective,” Evolution of Time: Studies of Time in Science, Anthropology, Theology, ed. Argyris Nicolaidis and Wolfgang Achtner, United Arab Emirates: Bentham Science Publishers, 2013, 185-210, 191.
- Evers, Dick, “God, Time and Eternal Life,” Evolution of Time: Studies of Time in Science, Anthropology, Theology, ed. Argyris Nicolaidis and Wolfgang Achtner, United Arab Emirates: Bentham Science Publishers, 2013, 139-161, 142.
- Ibid 142.
- Goosen, Gideon, Spacetime and Theology in Dialogue, Milwaukie, WI: Marquette University Press, 2008, 84.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens