This article is targeted towards a Christian, especially a Catholic audience; however I do believe someone who declares themselves an atheist or agnostic will be able to profit from this article as well.
Time is precious. So how should we use it while we still have it?
|'The Persistence of Memory', Salvador Dali|
Time is precious. It is a gift that we are given when we are conceived, and a gift that is taken away when we die. Indeed this is a truth: we are going to die sooner or later. Some today, some tomorrow, some yesterday even. To even mention this fact is to play the role of the one pointing out the white elephant in the room. This is because death confronts us, it scares us. Yet for those with faith in God and who believe that death is not the end but simply the beginning of eternal bliss, death is not a white elephant to ignore, nor a grim reaper to be sacred of, but an inescapable fact of reality which must be accepted and welcomed when it comes, because in Christ who has conquered death by rising from the dead, we too can share in His final laugh for Christ has snatched it from death’s hands. Yet the purpose of this article is not to spend time having an old yarn about death, but to discuss the God given gift of time and what we as individuals are doing with it.
Living the Examined Life
Reminding ourselves about our pending death is but an effective stimulus to really think about this, to think about how we are making use of our time. We are often so busy, so absorbed in what we have to do or in what we are currently doing, that we hardly ever spend time reflecting on who we are and on what we are doing here. This kind of reflection is not reserved to people of faith, and nor should it belong solely to people without faith, for being reflective people is to simply make use of our rationality which we all have as human persons. The ancient Greek proverb proclaimed by the philosophers and inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: “Know Thyself”, is as poignant today as it ever has been. This process of spending time coming to know oneself is how we begin as human persons to live what Socrates called ‘an examined life’. To neglect to even think about life and its meaning, and about what we are doing and who we are, and what we desire and long for, is to bury the gold of our intelligence in the dirt; it is to live ‘an unexamined life’, a wasted life.
|'The Temple of Apollo at Delphi', Giovanni Ruggero.|
Now what should we thinking about when it comes to the time we have? We should be thinking about how each moment comes and goes, never to be experienced again. We should be thinking about how we only live once, and what we can do in order to make the most of the time we have in order to do the best and most good that we can, while we can. We should ask ourselves: how do I spend my time? Maybe we work, cook, clean, watch a few hours of television each day, go out to coffee with friends here and there, perhaps go to Sunday Mass, and so forth. And then once we have thought of what we do with our time we might want to ask ourselves, what do I want to do with my time? And here we might start listing off our fantasies – entertainment, holidays, gaming, our favourite hobbies, partying, going to the beach, and relaxing. But then we come to perhaps the most pressing question of all, and the most confronting if we really take it seriously: how should I be spending my time?
If God doesn’t exist then how we spend our time has no significance at all. For if there is no God then there is no absolute moral imperative to use our time ‘doing good’. For in the end the grave is the final pit stop in such a case, so what does it matter if someone prays or doesn’t pray, remains faithful in wedlock or adulterates, forgives others or resents them, murders or not murders? The only reason someone might spend their time ‘doing good’ –at least somewhat – if they didn’t believe in God is if they believed that morality is man-made, a social construct which we ought to follow in order to be decent human beings; as if morality was a set of unwritten rules we ought to abide by for no other reason other than “because we’re human” or “because we should”. Most people who do not believe in God hold as their moral philosophy: “I do what I want, and so long as I hurt no one I’m ‘doing good’”. One can see how this position would make sense for an atheist, however if God does exist then this changes everything –it no longer matters how we want to spend our time, it matters how God wants us to spend this time. Why? Because if God does exist, and we imply that we have immortal souls and that an afterlife exists too, then how we spend our time determines how (and where) we spend our eternity.
Living the Examined Life in Faith
Now this is a Catholic blog so I’m going to talk in a Catholic way, in a truthful way, without the diplomatic semantics which are necessary in certain contexts and which I used sporadically above. God exists. So based on this truth –this is not the place to divulge clear rational evidences for God’s existence since this article is long enough as it is – we must ask ourselves in the light of this reality the question we posed earlier: how should I be spending my time? This is the same as asking how does God want me to spend my time? This is no question that should be brushed off lightly, because depending on how seriously we take this question determines, as mentioned previously, how we spend our eternity. So what does God want from us? He wants us to acknowledge our need for Him, for us to believe in His love and in His Son, and to love Him. Yet in order to love Him we are compelled to consider the dual commandment proclaimed by Jesus:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:37-39).
We have heard this time and time again, and perhaps we didn’t even bother to read the words of our Lord above because “we know it already”. Yet we can hardly know these commandments if we aren’t the most loving people on the face of the earth. Besides, out of all the things happening in our lives, out of all the worries, the responsibilities we have, nothing is more important than this: love. Love of God and love of neighbour. We can travel to every country in the world; we can have a million dollars in our savings account; we can pay off our mortgage; but if we lack love we are nothing. We can have twenty gorgeous children; we can be employee of the year; we can win the lottery; but if we lack love we are nothing. We can attend every musical theatre; we can read every book; we can go to church every day or every week; but if we lack love we are nothing. We can enjoy restaurant meals every night; we can be the most famous person in the world; we can pray six rosaries a day; we can hold every degree under the sun; but if we lack love we are nothing. The answer is clear then, how should I spend my time? How does God want me to spend my time? By loving God and loving our neighbour.
Now that’s great and all, but how can we practically love God and love our neighbour; how can we spend our time wisely? For our Lord will measure out to us the love we have given in this life, and by no other standard will he judge us. “For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Lk 6:38). Ideally we should not love in order to increase our eternal rewards, but as imperfect creatures inclined to selfishness since the Fall, it is useful to rouse ourselves to love based on tantalising our minds with the glories that can await us. For if we choose to use our time to love God and our neighbour, we will be adhering to the teaching of our Lord when he says: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Mt 6:19-21). So how do we love God and how do we love our neighbour? They are inseparable really, and one cannot truly do one without doing the other, for in Christ Jesus God and our neighbour have become one. Thus Christ says: “whatever you do to the least my brethren you do unto me” (Mt 25:40). However to make things easy let us deal with these two commandments separately and discuss practical ways we can use our time wisely without letting time slip by through our fingers.
Using our Time to Love God
The primary way we can use our time to love God is by praying. Prayer is not some rigid set time where we speak out loud to God and recite words, even though it may involve this at times, because “prayer is a surge of the heart” to God as St. Therese says, and this surge of the heart may involve words or it may be completely silent. It may consist of thoughts or reflections on heavenly things, or it may consist in singing, or in doing ordinary tasks with the intention to give God delight and love through doing what one does –in ‘offering it up’ as we say. Surely we would be wasting the time we have if we never prayed, and we would be wasting our time if we only prayed sometimes, or during set moments during the day or the week. For we are all called to live our entire lives in a spirit of prayer –this calling does not just belong to the cloistered nun or monk, it’s simply that they are called to carry out under voluntary obligation ‘set prayer’ more frequently. We might think of ourselves as ‘model Christians’ or ‘good Catholics’ who tick the necessary boxes of our faith, but thinking in this way reveals automatically that we are ‘full of ourselves’. Attending Sunday Mass is an obligation of our faith, but physically being there and actually being there are two separate things. Praying the Rosary daily has been requested by our Lady at Fatima, and has been encouraged by every Pope and Saint in the modern era; yet if we pray our Rosary in a rushed and careless manner, without any intention to praise God and help others, we are wasting our time. Daily Mass is a wonderful and recommended practice, especially if one is able to; although some cannot because of commitments, others cannot because they’re not aware of the meaning of the Mass –as the source of every spiritual treasure. However others go to daily Mass and they still may not be there in spirit, they may just be going through the motions. But anyway, who cares about what others are doing or not doing, what about ourselves? What is the Lord asking us to do? What sacrifices is he asking us to make? Is He asking us to attend Mass daily or at least once more during the week? Is He asking us to pray the Rosary daily? Is He asking us to commit to a weekly Holy Hour of Eucharistic Adoration? Is He asking us to let go of a sinful habit? Is He asking us to read the Bible more often? Is He asking us to learn more about our faith, and more about Him?
For all of us however, if we want to do our part in loving God, we must shut ourselves up in our room, or in some private place each and every day, and there let us be real with God, let us speak to Him as to a friend, let us place our worries into His hands, let us thank Him for His blessings; let us ask Him for favours, but be resigned to whatever He Wills; let us beg Him for many graces for ourselves and for others; let us cry out in sorrow and repentance for our sins; let us trust Him and ask Him to fill us with His love; and most importantly, let us commit to taking time out each and every day, no matter what, whether we’re busy or free, whether we feel like it or can’t be bothered praying, whether we’re tired or lively –to pray to our God in a secret place.
When should this set time be? Whenever, morning, noon, eve or night, but it is best to stick to the same time every day. I personally think it is best to spend this time either in the morning upon waking if one is a morning person, or before one sleeps -because this makes it easier to remember and to form a good habit of doing so. Besides this, it is always for the Christian an imperative to pray at least somewhat both upon waking and before sleeping, even if it’s just a ‘Hail Mary’ (from the heart and not just rambled off) and a simple phrase like: “bless this day, guide me to love you and my neighbours” or “thank you for this day, have mercy on the souls in purgatory, and bless me while I sleep.”
How long should such a time be? It’s a shame we need a time limit guide, because whoever puts a time limit on lovers who converse? But if it must be said it should really be no less than half an hour, but ideally an hour. If we’re only beginning to get back into daily prayer and yearn to escape after 10 minutes, we should ask God to give us the strength to stay and to pray, and remain until at least half an hour has elapsed. If we don’t know how to pray, let us ask God to teach us, for such humility is pleasing to God. The aid of a prayer book can come in handy too. Yet we might say, isn’t this much too hard and long? Not at all, but it will seem so if we haven’t disciplined ourselves into daily set prayer, but “prayer is the oxygen of the soul” as St. Padre Pio says, and so how do we think our soul is going health-wise if we aren’t even spending at least a period each day in prayer? If we physically stop breathing for even a short while we die, so perhaps we must consider the state of the soul that hardly prays, that hardly breaths. Now when we do begin our prayer it is always, no matter how much one prays, a good practice to ask God for the strength and grace to be able to pray, because without relying on His help and relying on our own will power instead, we will soon fizzle out –skipping a day here, a week there, until we arrive at praying on the odd occasion like some wayward child that rocks up at home whenever it suits him. Satan’s jolliest task and his first attack against anyone is to stop them from praying, to make them think that it is a waste of time, and that “we’ve better things to do”. This is because he knows that prayer is the pathway that will lead a soul away from him and towards God; and this is why Satan places many ‘reasonable’ temptations to our mind in order to persuade us to do anything but prayer, or that prayer can wait until tomorrow. God however wants what is best for us, and His voice always seems harder to follow then the path everyone else seems to be taking. But if we take this path of daily prayer, in the good times and the bad, whether we feel like our prayers are working or not, then we can be confident that we are making excellent use of our time, and we will be glad we did so when we come before the throne of God.
|'The Last Judgment' (detail), Michelangelo.|
What should one do during this time? Whatever one feels prompted to do. Yet it’s recommended to begin with the Sign of the Cross, and throughout the time –whatever one does – to at least spend time repenting of sins, giving thanks, spending moments in silence to ‘get out of the way’ so as to allow God to fill one with His love, and so as to bask in His Presence as a sun bather basks in the rays of the sun; and to ask for graces for oneself and for others –spiritual (i.e. awareness of sin, joyfulness, growth in sanctity, understanding of God’s Will, to reach heaven, etc.) and temporal (i.e. good health, financial needs etc.). One might also want to pray the Rosary and/or read a verse from the Bible and mediate upon it –thinking how it applies to one’s life. Most importantly one must remember that this is a sacred time and that by simply doing so in faith one pleases our Lord who said: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Mt 6:6).
What if we’re already praying daily? If this is so let us resolve to pray from the heart, to ask God for the grace to guide us in prayer and to teach us what He wants to teach us –especially for the grace of understanding His Will. For this “knowledge of his will”, which is “love and mercy itself”, is the way in which we can “lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (1 Col 9-10). Let us never think salvation is a thing we receive and that’s it, for God wants us to grow in sanctity which means coming to forget ourselves and letting Him take control of our life. Let us never pat ourselves on the back for praying daily, because this kind of arrogance will lead us to become Pharisees who outwardly do what is right, but who are harsh, unloving serpents on the inside. Prayer should be a rendezvous of love between the soul and God. If we are praying daily already let us come to our prayer with new eyes, with a bag full of fresh intentions –with our Lady’s intentions; and with the desire to be drawn deeper in union with God, and to come to live and move in the ocean of His Will, the ocean of His Love. Finally, our Lady is mystically associated with time, she has been entrusted by God as ‘the time keeper’ we could say. Let us place the gift of our time in Her hands, in Her heart, and ask Her to help us make perfect use of every second. It’s not as if we have to be running around doing things 24/7, or praying ‘Our Father’s’ nonstop, for we can even make good use of time by sleeping when we have to, such as by bearing the intention of sleeping in God’s arms.
Using our Time to Love our Neighbours
By using our time to love God in prayer we can begin to truly love our neighbours, for in prayer we are filled with God’s love, peace and joy –a love, peace and joy the world cannot give – but which we can instrumentally give as people of prayer to those we meet. Of course we will make mistakes at times, by losing our temper or by engaging in slanderous gossip for example, but we mustn’t be surprised at how bad we are because God alone in good, we must simply beg Him to let His goodness flow through us. So how can we practically love our neighbours? It’s simple, let us begin with those nearest to us –those who at times are the hardest to love. Let us be open to strangers, and would it kill us to use manners and a smile? Let us greet people genuinely, not as some pre-recorded drone. Let us actually listen to others, and ask how they are and mean it. Let us do our work without grumbling and complaining as if we are martyrs, because we are fortunate to have a job, and because we can be a witness to our co-workers of how God can transform our lives. Let us perform our chores and duties with joy, recognising each moment and seemingly mundane task as an opportunity to serve and love God –because with a simple intention ‘to do it for Him, with Him and in Him’ our mundane tasks win glory for God, help save souls, and store up treasure for ourselves in heaven. Let us be honest with ourselves, look into our hearts, and see if we hold any resentments against people who have wronged us or wronged those we love. We must forgive everyone, if we cannot let go of resentments we are spiting in Christ’s face who forgave us though we killed Him with our sins, and we will be placing ourselves at risk of hell’s flames –“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Mt 6:15). We may not emotionally feel like we’ve forgiven someone at first, but so long as we make the choice with our free will to forgive, ask God for the grace to do so, and perhaps make use of words such as: “I forgive Tony for this in the name of Jesus, and let go of all my known and hidden resentments against him”, then we can be confident we are pleasing our Lord, and that we are removing from our hearts those stones of resentment which could weigh our souls down to hell itself. Anyway, what do we gain from holding unto grudges, even if it seems fair to do so? Nothing, we simply give permission to God to withhold His forgiveness from us, because as mentioned above, and it is worth repeating time and time again: –“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Mt 6:15).
|'Hell', Portuguese School (Fifteenth Century).|
We must also cease slandering others, and gossiping about the faults of others. We must cease judging others too, because this is sheer pride when we think we are better than others; and our Lord warns us: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged” (Mt 7:1a). Let us also look out for those in our community, in our family even, who are broken, lonely and in need in any way –let us assist them, especially by using our time to be with them, and secondly by helping them financially or by doing ‘odd jobs’ in any way we can. Let us visit the elderly and have compassion on the sick. Let us pray for our neighbours, and give our friends words of encouragement when they are feeling down. Let us help our local priests, engage with our local parish, and contribute to the Church, and to the Church’s charities. Now these are all simple things, easy and small things that we can all do with God’s grace, it is not as if we need to go to Africa where thousands upon thousands are starving to death in order to love our neighbour; for though some are called to this, we at least can bloom right where we are planted.
How do we spend our Time?
Having explored the question how should we spend our time? and its moral equivalent how does God want me to send my time? We must finally return to the present – to how do I currently spend my time? Perhaps we (and let’s face it, we’re all bound to be) are in need of modifying how we spend our time. Maybe we spend too much of our time doing things that are ‘kind of’ important and not enough of the things that will actually make the difference when we appear before the throne of God. Maybe we watch too much television, or we are semi-addicted to Netflix, facebook, twitter, or watching youtube videos; and maybe instead we could commit to daily prayer and even take up spiritual reading (which we can even do online) – after all, what can we miss from forgoing one hour of watching some show, especially if we’ve already watched it, and we can always record it anyway. Maybe we are not spending time on Sunday – a day commanded by the Lord as a day of rest – to truly rest, to refrain from needless work and hard labour. Is double-pay worth disregarding this commandment ‘to chill and relax’, when the Lord will make up for it in the next life and in this life? Do we ever spend time in silence, or are we afraid of actually encountering ourselves and God? Do we ever at least put aside our phones and ipods to spend moments, even small moments, in prayer?
Besides the matter of what we do or don’t do during the time we have, how do we ontologically spend our time? That is, in what state of being and with what intentions do we use our time? Do we think of time as money instead of a means of winning celestial money for paradise? Do we go through our days only wishing tomorrow would come, or the weekend, only do waste each ‘today’ we have with moans and complains instead of using such a day as an opportunity to love God and neighbour? Do we unload the dishwasher or wash dishes or clothes with the intent of letting God operate in us, so that a mundane act becomes infused with divine love? Do we play games or watch films for the sake of it, or do we do it with the intention of bringing God glory? For all these things are not always harmful in themselves, so long as we do such things in moderation; and if we engage in such things as watching a film with a prayerful intent, such a vain occasion can even be an occasion to amass spiritual treasure for the next life.
Finally, let us be brutally honest with ourselves, let us come face to face with God by listening to our conscience; and then let us repent, ask for the grace to act how we know we should –even if we don’t fully know how yet – and then let us resolve to start afresh, to start truly using our time how God wants us to –to love Him in prayer and to love our neighbours in kindness. In such a way we store up treasure for ourselves in heaven; whereas those who fritter away their time in vanities –even if they are saved – will enjoy heaven, but with less delight than those who expanded the treasure chest of their heart through love. Therefore let us resolve this very day to forgive all, to love all, and to shut up ourselves in a secret place and to knock loudly on the doors of heaven –sorrowful, hopeful, and trustful; and glad to be with the One who thirsts for our company.
|'Jacob's Ladder', William Blake.|
When we die we will appear before the judgment throne of God. There our entire life, each and every moment, will flash before us in an instant. How many souls regret so many moments, so much time spent not loving God or neighbour, in not praying when one could have, and in not doing even ordinary tasks with a prayerful intention? Many souls might not have even thought of the possibility during their earthly life that even their ordinary acts could become opportunities to grow in sanctity. Many of them might not have realised until their judgment how important and how powerful prayer is; and how much of a difference receiving Holy Communion with gratitude and preparation makes in the eternal kingdom. Indeed our Lord said to St. Faustina Kowalska: “I want to tell you that eternal life must begin already here on earth through Holy Communion. Each Holy Communion makes you more capable of communing with God throughout eternity.” (DM, 1811). This is a wonderful truth, and wonderful also is the fact that we are not yet dead, that we are not yet before the throne of God. We still have time. How much? Maybe only an hour, a day, a decade. Regardless, we still have time, and we can use this precious gift in a phenomenal way if only we ask God for the grace to be able to do so from the depths of our hearts, and act according to what we know we should do. We can only use time moment by moment, and so all we can do, and the most we can do, is love moment by moment. Allowing the flame of God’s divine love, the Holy Spirit Himself, to consume our every moment and to make them His own through our desire for this to be so. Let’s not throw away our moments, because there’s no time to lose.