In Rockford, Illinois, a faded, yellow-brick ranch house sits between a large wood and the helicopter pad at the Emergency Unit of Saint Anthony Medical Center. The house, which boasts more paintings and statues of saints than pieces of furniture, serves as a convent for the three Franciscan sisters who work at Saint Anthony’s—one of whom is my biological sister.
While visiting recently, my parents and I joined the sisters for their midmorning office. I was struck, as I have often been, by the changeless drone in which they perform their prayers and chants. No inflection, no alteration of speed or pitch is admitted. Each word proceeds exactly like the last, and if now and again you should diverge from the sober plodding, you experience the departure not as indicative of your devotion but of needless self-assertion. It seems unfeeling, unsuited both to the poetry of the psalms and the beauty of the God whom they address. Adding to the discomfort was a quiet ache that accompanied us into the chapel. Here we had been, cooking and laughing in the convent’s kitchen, and now this obligation had made a breach in the lovely chaos.
I resolved, however, not to be so disconcerted. As I adjusted to the even rhythm of the phrases, a thick stillness settled over the small beige chapel. I found myself increasingly captivated by the words themselves. Give thanks… His love endures forever…What better can we do than take refuge in the Lord? In the calm of consistency, I recalled the seemingly obvious but easily abandoned truth that these words have a significance and a sense independent of that which I gave them. It was less the case that I was using the words to address God than that I was being addressed by the text. Oddly, the lack of improvisation secured rather than repelled my attention. The sameness of those chants, the sameness of the whole pattern of life that the sisters embraced, all conspired to arrest me and to establish the peace that filled that moment.
Afterward, the significance of this encounter with monotony lingered as a question at the fringes of my mind. Perhaps it’s because I have been, as Annie Dillard puts it in The Writing Life, “looking into schedules” lately. This is at least partially due to the realization that, in my final year of formal education, I neither understand nor possess that elusive skill called “time management.” More broadly, the topic of “routines”—their usefulness, their varieties, et cetera—is pervasive in contemporary discourse, to whatever extent Facebook articles, op-eds, and lifestyle blogs constitute discourse. There appear to be two common paradigms for our relationship to time, each of which vies for the adherence of young people (and of Hillsdale students in particular). Either time is a resource to be utilized in pursuit of self-actualization, or it is simply the opportunity for total and spontaneous self-gift.
The first paradigm, the “optimization” model, is likely quite familiar to us. Steve Jobs informs us, on “optimalthinking.com,” that time is “the most precious resource” human beings have. Any entrepreneur will affirm that managing time so as to maximize productivity is the sine qua non of his or her success. A plethora of industries unfold around this ideal, from fast-food health restaurants to “life hack” webinars to $89 customizable planners. Time is a finite resource, and as is the case with all resources, it can be used for better or worse. Each individual has the capacity to develop the algorithm that will yield maximal returns on his investments. Lest we oversimplify, this mindset has applications outside a strictly monetary context. “Returns” may be sought in the form of personal, relational, or physical growth, but the premise stays the same: dissatisfaction with the circumstances of our life results only from a failure to exercise mastery over our time.
The second, “sacrificial” paradigm rubs against this. Our time is not meant for our own use; it is a gift and meant to be given in turn. Those things we tend to categorize as “inconveniences” are in fact the very stuff of life. The dilemma is so familiar to us as to feel outworn—is it really acceptable for me to turn away from a friend seeking my presence, simply in order to complete a task? Of course, we must (and ought to) go about the daily business of life, but these structures must always be ready to yield to the demands of the Other. It is in this profound openness and responsivity that meaning arises. Only when we become capable of tending to those around us in spontaneous self-gift do we come into a right relationship with time and escape the obsessive, circular mentality of maximization.
From a Christian perspective, this is clearly the more compelling scheme. After all, the command to love God and neighbor places upon each individual a call toward radical presence and responsibility that precludes the logic of greed and control. Thus we lament, as Max Weber did, “the iron cage” of modern hyper-rationalized society and the “bringing in of calculation into the traditional brotherhood, displacing the old religious relationship.” If in the first model there is no clear end, no sense of what time is ultimately being saved for, this scheme at least provides a clear answer: we must use time to serve others. The desire to master time is, in the end, wholly pathological.
Granting these claims, however, is it true that our time is richest and most ordered toward God when it is most “open”? We tend to assume, even if implicitly, that the cultivation of routines and schedules inhibits our capacity for self-gift and immures us to the novelty of the world. By ordering our lives around obligations and repetitions, surely we destroy that unique and open space in which the transcendence of others and the world can break in upon us. Yet it seems to me that this second model, while eliminating the dangerous obsession with control and profit that we find in the first, shares a somewhat problematic belief: time exists separately from me as a “stuff” at my disposal. We blithely assume that “we have time.” And the trouble here is not simply our tendency to ignore our mortality or the fleetingness of time. Rather, it is the whole mentality of “having”—a mentality that reigns whether I conceive of my time as something that I can give to others or as capital in my private bank.
Time, however, stands much closer to us than that. In his work Persons, German philosopher Robert Spaemann writes that
to think of a person is to think of one’s own existence as a form—not a form that maintains itself through time as an unfluctuating object of timeless knowledge, but a form that is itself a formation of time, a “temporal form.”
We do not merely have time, as though “we” could pass through it unscathed. Our words, actions, and dispositions are forged in time. It is the very fabric of our life, and we become ourselves only through the continual taking-up of this relationship to time. The soul does not stand over time as its master and dispenser but participates in it. In his Confessions, Augustine takes up this theme and further suggests that, with the Incarnation, it is no longer possible to conceive of time and eternity as two poles of a duality. Whatever it means to live in Christ, it must involve the integration of our temporality into God’s eternity. In Augustine’s narrative, this is accomplished incarnationally. A man of “frequent and prolonged prayer,” Augustine’s friend Ponticianus draws him to the crisis of his conversion by showing him that, in wasting his time, he has wasted his very self. By encountering an “image” of time humbly submitted to and ordered by its Origin, God, Augustine recognizes the arrogance he has indulged by fancying himself free of time. To conceive of one’s “self” as existing fully outside of time belies a refusal to be a creature.
If thinking of time as a possession is misleading, it may be more fruitful to think of schedules—our “temporal forms”—as analogous to places. To return to The Writing Life, Dillard observes that
how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is… a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time … a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time.
With customary bluntness, Dillard topples our pretensions: “what we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” A life is surely more than the sum of its hours. Yet if we underestimate the significance of those hours, we attain only “chaos and whim” rather than the freedom we hope for. In this unwieldy and undifferentiated flow of time, we can build schedules, can establish places. By forming our time, we form our dwelling.
It may seem that this puts too great a weight upon our lives, and thus that the problem has not really been averted. If persons are formations of time, each moment becomes incomprehensibly valuable, and we must be certain to spend each in the best way. In reality, the opposite is true. French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty writes that “habit expresses the power we have of dilating our being in the world.” Through the cultivation of habits, we escape the burden of investing each moment with its significance. This, to my understanding, is what I experienced in the chapel in Rockford. Relieved of the “responsibility” to bring something to prayer, I could rest upon the habit of the psalms and their history, could be still enough to hear voices other than my own. To experience “freedom” in time we must give ourselves over to a schedule. When they are formed intentionally, those schedules become things we can lean upon, acknowledging both their contingency and their dignity. By embracing habit, we free ourselves from the anxiety that arises both when we seek control or when we seek a continual feeling of “being present.”
Moreover, despite its imagery of the “scaffold” and “life raft,” Dillard’s description goes beyond necessity or utility and meets up with our original concern of how to love others with our time. To establish a “peace and a haven” into the flux of time immediately opens the possibility of welcoming others into that haven—as Ponticianus did for Augustine, as the sisters did for me. Building boundaries is not an inherently hostile but an inherently human act, one that humbly accepts and even rejoices in our finiteness and particularity. Each “temporal form” is unique and uniquely able to welcome others. A home unites two seemingly disparate desires: the one for order, efficiency, boundaries, preservation, and the other to provide for and shelter one’s neighbors.
The difficulty with self-gift, after all, is that it involves what comes on the front side of the hyphen as much as what follows it. We find ourselves holding this incomprehensibly complex self with which we must contend, and we must do this if we are to “give of ourselves.” We are not meant to obliterate our particularities, our personalities, or the ways in which we structure our time, but to transform them by ordering them toward God. The way to escape the “iron cage” is not to reject structure altogether, for that “old religious relationship” was in fact born out of a rich fabric of habits and customs. It relied upon a framework of “vocation” that is largely unfamiliar to the contemporary mind. To love the Other within the context of our limitations is fundamentally an act of trust and humility. This mode of service is “self-preserving” only in that, when we engage in it, we affirm that we are neither God nor gods. We claim instead a vocation, a particular call, a way of being that is uniquely our own and that creates the possibility of hospitality.
The beauty and warmth of time thus formed by habit can be fully manifest only in incarnate experience. What was at first foreign and rigid to me at the convent was nevertheless experienced as welcoming. It was a place cultivated out of love and fidelity into which I stepped, not thrown together for my arrival but a true “habitation.” And in that stillness, a space was opened in which the Word could speak. The beauty of “monotony” is that it provides a still place in the “wreck of time” into which we can invite others. It is no accident that habit and habitation are cognates. Sheltered and bolstered by consistency, we lead one another not merely to ourselves but to a fuller encounter with the real. Habit, then, is an act of “letting be,” and it is in that letting-be that transcendence truly arises. To take refuge in the Lord, for those of us who are embodied, often begins with taking refuge in the “home” of another person.
Cait Weighner is a senior studying philosophy.
Photograph contributed by Caroline Hennekes.