Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Time of the Sacred Encounter

The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments. In a religious experience, for example, it is not a thing that imposes itself on man but a spiritual presence. What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass. A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time. Spiritual life begins to decay when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is eternal in time.

Our intention here is not to deprecate the world of space. To disparage space and the blessing of things of space, is to disparage the works of creation, the works which God beheld and saw ‘it was good.’ The world cannot be seen exclusively sub specie temporis. Time and space are interrelated. To overlook either is to be partially blind. What we plead against is man’s unconditional surrender to space, his enslavement to things. We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.

The Bible is more concerned with time than with space. It sees the world in the dimension of time. It pays more attention to generations, to events, than to countries, to things; it is more concerned with history than with geography. To understand the teaching of the Bible, one must accept its premise that time has a meaning for life which is at least equal to that of space; that time has a significance and sovereignty of its own.

There is no equivalent for the word ‘thing’ in biblical Hebrew. The word davar which in later Hebrew came to denote thing, means in biblical Hebrew: speech; word; message; report; tidings; advice; request; promise; decision; sentence; theme, story; saying, utterance; business, occupation; acts; good deeds; events; way, manner, reason, cause; but never ‘thing’. Is this a sign of linguistic poverty, or rather an indication of an unwarped view of the world, of not equating reality (derived from the Latin word res, thing) with thinghood?
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Reflection – At this point in our reading of Heschel, I think we do need to interject the specifically Christian understanding of the relation of time and space. He is very strong, very good on affirming the goodness of space and the material universe, so long as we are not enslaved to it.

For the Jewish perspective, and especially in light of this presentation on Shabbat, on the Sabbath, time does indeed have a sovereignty over space, events and history over things, as it is in events and history and the movement of time that God manifests himself to his people. But while this is of great value and holds much truth that is true for everyone, there is a Christian difference in how we understand the interrelation of time and space.

And of course that difference is the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, which is entirely foreign to Judaism. God became flesh, and the immaterial and eternal entered and united Himself to both time and space in their innermost core. In the Catholic and Orthodox understanding of this, in which the Incarnation remains a continuous event through the sacramental life of the Church and most particularly through the Eucharistic presence of Christ, this does mean that ‘geography’ too assumes a sacred character in our religion that is not exactly what it is in the Jewish faith. We actually believe that God has made an actual home for Himself on the face of the earth, and that home is the tabernacle in which resides the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, God made man.

That necessary Christian proviso being said, Heschel’s point stands, and stands well. The whole of our spiritual life, its substantial reality and everlasting value, consists in the ongoing encounter with the Person, the Presence, the One who reveals Himself to us and winds His life in with our own and makes the two one in ways that are mostly a deep mystery to us.

The movement of God with us is through time and history and our life’s slow unfolding. While God is indeed with us in space and in place, the action of God wholly transcends place and geography. God comes to us, and this happens when it happens, in sacred time—the kairos of God. This Greek word (pronounced to rhyme with ‘my dose’) signifies the time of the event, as opposed to the measured time (chronos) which is simply thinghood in motion, time as the movements of the hands of the clock.

Heschel, being Jewish, does not utilize the kairos-chronos distinction which is more typical and common in Eastern Christianity. Chronos is time-as-money, time as measured for production, something limited and fleeting which must be mined for its useful content. Kairos is this other reality, time as encounter, as event, as a sacred moment in which there is no utility, no ‘profit’, nothing to achieve, nothing to do.

It is kairos that bears us into the presence of God, and it is above all the kairos of liturgy and worship—sacred time occurring in sacred space, a time unmeasured by utilitarianism and economic necessity, the seamless coming together of time and space into a genuine encounter with the God who has truly embraced both in Jesus Christ, that is the genuine Christian Sabbath, the temple in time and space, the Tent of Meeting where God comes to his people to radiate his glory and love upon them.

1 comment:

  1. Fr. Robert Taft has explained that the space between God and man (between their fingers) is the space for the Divine Liturgy where God touches us and we touch Him.


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