In My End Is My Beginning: On the Mercy of Time in the Season of Lent

This is the cold time, the long time, the Lenten time.

All of creation groans for new life, but the ground whispers, Not yet.

All of God’s people groan for the final redemption, for the here-and-now of God-with-us, but the still, small voice whispers, Not yet.

The Resurrection is coming. The Resurrection has come. From an eternal perspective, the Resurrection is. Christ cried, “Finished,” as He hung on the Cross and gave up His spirit. “He is not here; He has risen.” But we are still here, and here is where we wander. Here is where we work. Here is where we feel the pulse of time.

In the morning I wake up when the sky still sleeps, drawn from my bed by the warm promise of a mug of tea. While I am in the kitchen waiting for the water to boil, I scan the horizon through the windows above my kitchen sink. The stillness of morning is something I crave in the bustle of a busy day of classes, meetings, and homework. I listen to the water start to dance in the kettle and whisper snippets of conversation with my housemate as she gently forces the coffee grounds to the bottom of her French press. She stirs her coffee, I stir my tea.

Each morning, we follow the same ritual, and each morning, we come alive for the day.

It’s taken a while to find this rhythm. I regularly adopt a new morning routine each semester out of necessity as classes shift and schedules change. For the entirety of my freshman year, I woke up early and trekked up the hill for breakfast before my 8 a.m. classes. At that time, it was restful to begin my day with a full breakfast, and the sacrifice of sleep was worth it (and, truth be told, I was getting to bed much earlier than I do now). Sophomore year was an entirely different beast; my classes began later in the morning and I no longer went to breakfast, preferring to eat in my room or in the early morning bustle of A.J.’s when the day had just barely begun. Only now, in the second semester of my junior year, do I feel as if I’m settling into a routine that will last. I am learning to make my peace with the morning.

There’s something intoxicating about the pure possibility of a morning. I’ve had many conversations with my father about the value of late nights and early mornings and we’ve finally settled on what we love about those two bookends of the day: they’re free from the bonds of time. Whether you’re working or praying late at night or early at dawn, there’s a seeming timelessness to those few hours. It’s too early or too late to engage with the world and no one is texting to make plans. Even nature seems paused, dark, brooding, caught in this pseudo-eternity between the death of one day and the birth of the next.

But more often than not, I used to take advantage of the stillness to work ahead, clamoring after any spare hour in order to check every box on my neverending list. Forever poking and prodding us is the temptation to grasp at every last bit of time and cram it full of production. From this perspective, the morning in particular is extra time given to finish that reading, study for that exam, or finally plug away at the research you’ve been avoiding. And, taken in its own right, there is nothing inherently wrong in this approach. But what I started to notice in myself as I adopted this mentality was a desire to constantly fight against the morning, to value each hour only for what it I got out of it and not for itself alone. Far from being sacred or untouched, the early morning was just a few extra hours added to the front of a very long day and I felt the burden to use them up. Time had no boundary lines—no hours were set apart. And in the freedom of discovering extra time, I managed to uproot what I used to love about the morning. What’s worse, I marked a morning as a failure if it did not find me accomplishing something. My actions beat a dull mantra into my spirit: time was time poorly spent if it did not bear fruit.

“Only through time time is conquered.”
T. S. ELIOT, BURNT NORTON

In Walden, Thoreau calls the morning “the most memorable season of the day,” that fresh-faced hour when “some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.” There’s a beautiful optimism about an early morning—it brings with it a blank canvas, a day seemingly untouched by human error. But if the work of the morning is no different than the work of the afternoon and the work of the night—if boundaries on our time melt away and we find ourselves worn, dry, and longing for the next break—then we are simultaneously killing the beauty of the morning even as we revel in it. It’s far too easy to get into the habit of viewing each day, each week, or even each month as something that must produce growth and fruit on our own terms. I have fifteen years’ worth of journals to prove that I have been fighting time for as long as I could write and have not yet overcome it.

With technology’s help, however, we have managed to adjust to the most inconvenient limitations of time. For better or worse, we have stripped away from our society almost all natural dependence on the seasons: we can do our laundry in a high-efficiency washer at midnight, we can buy milk from a grocery store that doesn’t close until ten o’clock at night, and we can turn lights on and work at 5 o’clock in the morning (if we so choose) though the sun won’t rise for another two hours at least. Even the arrival of the new year itself brings with it a determined push to reform our habits along more desirable lines, which often means we seek to prematurely fill winter’s weary dregs with vigor and vivacity in the form of yoga routines and kale smoothies. We fall into a season that naturally deadens our spirits by attacking new lists, new goals, and new mornings.

It seems appropriate that the most barren months of the year are those in which we attempt to bring forth fruit of a new kind in our own lives. We have not yet gone so mad that we believe we can shape time to our will, but we do our best to step around its unpleasant side effects. If I cannot witness leaves coming out on the trees and feel the warmth of spring bringing life back to the frozen soil, at least I can initiate developments of a different sort in my own life. We just celebrated the birth of Christ in December with carols, gift-giving, and warm, lively conversations around the Christmas tree. Dropping off into the emptiness, even shapelessness, of January and February can be chilling to the soul. The spring semester can never promise as much color and life as the fall. So I buy new journals, clean out my closet, and begin new books to force some shape into my hours. Our inherent restlessness pushes us to heighten both production and consumption, determining time’s worth by the way in which we fill it. So long as I keep planting seeds, I’ll never feel the tedium of waiting for them to sprout.

This is the Lenten time, the “time of tension between dying and birth” as T. S. Eliot describes it in “Ash Wednesday,” yet we’re so consumed with the act of escaping time that we push past it. We don’t like to feel the tension of stillness. We encounter stillness and call it sloth; we consider time not devoted to producing to be time wasted.

How I used to approach one morning is only a microcosm of how we approach our lives, sucking out their marrow and expecting fruit at every hour. But life is not always either inactivity or activity—many seasons fall somewhere in the middle. If the farmer cannot accuse his land of not bringing forth its harvest in the dead of February, why do we expect that we ought to always have something to show for our time and effort? And what would we do if we ever did arrive, if we beat so hard against the current that we finally overcame it?

Time brings us into direct contact with the limitations of our own nature. In the modern world, it is a far more valuable commodity than money because we have less control over it. We can make money—we have not yet learned to make time. We had been trying to overcome it long before Andrew Marvell wrote his famous poem and we’ve continued to try long afterward. Men buy hair creams and women buy face creams and both do so to repair what time has stolen from them. We know that our youth does not last, but we would still rather prolong it than face what follows. And even if we can’t stop the aging, we can shut our eyes to its continuation by filling our hours with noise and activity and movement.

For better or worse, my English major has gone a long way in killing my production-focused mentality. Every semester without fail, it shaves off a little more of my perfectionism and forces me to accept the barren seasons as well as the fruitful ones. You cannot write an English paper without engaging in a wrestling match with your text and your time. Research humbles us because the library will not deliver our sources on our own schedules (and every semester without fail, the perfect journal article will take several weeks to make the arduous journey to Mossey Library from the shelves in Kalamazoo). Literary analysis humbles us not because we can systematically enter into a battle and come out as the victor, but because it takes time to unpack a text, it takes time to understand a narrative, and it takes time to understand how we ought to respond to what the author has laid out before us. This is but one small image of our human frailty. Many a day, a week, yes, even a month in the in-between time of the semester has ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.

I think we wrestle most keenly with these periods of stillness because our culture has no place for them. Though my family has not always practiced Lent, I have grown increasingly appreciative of the deliberate shape it gives to these otherwise shapeless months between Christmas and Easter when the natural world is caught between the glory of life and the glory of life-from-death. To enter into the season of Lent with the body of Christ is to openly acknowledge that we are all bound for death—“dust you are and to dust you shall return”—but it is also an act of relinquishing our controlling grasp on time. We are given these forty days for a purpose: to remember our own mortality and to set aside the things that bind us closely to this world. But we get to walk through them in a very temporal, earthly way with the rest of the community of the Church. Even as we are reminded of our own temporality, we are given a small vision of the light of eternity.

Most importantly, Lent is a reminder that the in-between time, the grey hours just before dawn, do have a purpose. Our eternal souls are always clamoring to break free of these earthly bodies, to hurry into glory and past the ordinary days with ordinary tasks that ask ordinary things of us. But our bodies are not mere fleshly casings that we ought to use and cast aside. Time shapes and sanctifies us in a way that we would not be shaped and sanctified otherwise. What we do in the pause, the lull, the waiting between death and birth, often defines us more than the highlands and valleys themselves.

Resist the temptation so contagious to a Hillsdale student to fill every minute with activity and claim this season of Lent for fasting, for praying, for waiting. You do not have to produce to be alive. You do not have to see the green to know the wick is there. You have seen the cross—soon you will see the empty tomb.

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.”

T. S. ELIOT, EAST COKER

 

Chloe Kookogey is a junior studying English and Classical Education.

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