One of the worst feelings in the world is having wasted time. The more time wasted, the worse it feels. It’s a sinking, miserable, polluted, grumpy feeling. And it seems to get worse as one get older – as time goes faster and gets more precious and the list of useful things you could/should have done gets longer. But at the core of that feeling of having wasted time is, I think, not an unchecked list of tasks; it’s a hungry soul left unfed.
And so, it is possible to go through life constantly doing things, ticking off checklists, and with that sense of time wasted gnawing constantly; and that empty gnawing is suppressed by a constant explosion of activities, noises, colours, tastes, places, words, conversations… anything and everything to avoid being still and silent and feeling the inner empty feeling of a hungry soul travelling through its allotted span. In our society it seems that this feverish activity gets all the more frenzied as people grow old – retirement has become for many the time to go on constant holidays, take up a plethora of busy activities – from dance to degrees, to battle desperately the signature of time with bottles of dye, boxes of make-up, and even surgery. Anything, everything, to avoid the gaze of the end of life that awaits and the question that it poses: was all that time wasted?
Of course, we Christians know how we can use our time meaningfully. How to weave a tapestry out of the passing strands. It’s not that dance, or degrees, or travel, or many other forms of activity, are intrinsically wrong. It’s that our lives must be anchored in Christ for everything we do to acquire meaning: all our activities must be Christ-centred and Christ orientated.
‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ Matt 6:19-21.
And it is only when our hearts are placed in Christ’s Hands and open to Him that our souls are peaceful and at rest. As the Lord says, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yolk upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yolk is easy and my burden is light.’ Matt 11:28-30
And yet, we Christians can often forget this precious truth, and resist the impulse to be still in favour of the counter-impulse to keep busy and to ignore the still, small voice of calm. Because, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we prefer to hide from the reality of having ‘missed the mark‘ (literal meaning of the Greek word for sin) than humble ourselves and recognise that all our pride is delusion; our worldly treasures are decaying rubbish; our eyes keep slipping from the target and our feet from the path.
And this is very true of me. My life is a constant war between the still, small voice of calm, and the large hammer of deafening meaningless activity. And, again and again, there are days where the only fruit I’ve produced at the end is rotten and worm-eaten. Somehow knowing how fulfilling it feels to spend days gathering good fruit and feeding my spirit, versus how terribly empty and miserable it feels to spend days bringing in withered, even putrid, fruit does not always deter me from wasting my time.
And the busier and noisier my responsibilities already are, perversely the stronger the lure to waste the precious quiet time available; to ‘reward’ myself in my time off by postponing prayer, reading/listening to/watching spiritually-nourishing material, reflective walks, doing things to put my life in order or serve others, and instead gulping down reading/listening/watching empty and shallow things, browsing the internet and daydreaming aimlessly, chattering and gossiping, anything really that drowns out my soul’s clamour to be fed.
‘Time off’ that is quiet and reflective and nourishing is all the more priceless, in the midst of an already busy and noisy life and world. Sometimes I don’t realise just how hungry my soul was until I’ve fed it, and I feel so different, so much healthier. And a whole day of soul-feeding, from time to time, is invaluable. It’s difficult, because even Sundays can become too full to fit in much quiet soul-nourishing time. Some of this busy-ness is inescapable – especially in a society that has little respect for Sundays, but some of it is due to poor-time management and so I should try to organise my time better to fit in more quiet time when I can.
I had a whole day off to myself recently, and in the afternoon I took my knitting to the park and sat there, alternately listening to Search the Scriptures podcasts from Ancient Faith Radio, and praying the Jesus prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’) while enjoying the gentle sounds of boats coming up the river and the breeze in the trees. Having something mechanical, productive and repetitive to do with my fingers seemed to free up my mind all the more to focus on prayer and learning about my faith – it felt a bit like the Desert Fathers‘ spiritual practice of weaving baskets while praying! The time slipped by so slowly, stitch by stitch, and that in itself felt wonderful as time in the modern world usually goes so fast. ‘Quickly’ browse Facebook, or check the sports’ headlines, or watch a video clip, and you find ten minutes have zipped past. It was nice to let the time just sink in, and spent a whole afternoon in quiet study and prayer. Somehow the time felt much longer, and I felt like I’d been to a retreat by the time I headed back home – so thoroughly at peace and relaxed.
Too often we treat our lives like motor cars – speeding along carelessly, noisily, competitively, and throwing up dust. But it feels so much better to take life stitch by stitch when we can, and soak up some still time in the presence of God.