The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

The thoughts expressed here are my personal thoughts and sometimes reflect my political views. As a private citizen I have every right to express these views.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Time...and time again

I try not to think about time very much because doing so gives me a headache. Many years ago, I took a course on cosmology in which the subject of time was addressed at length. You really can't discuss the universe without digging pretty deeply into time and its relationship to space. As I recall we spent part of that course discussing Albert Einstein and his theories of relativity, theories all wrapped up in time and leading to some very strange conclusions. Today, years later, I've forgotten most of what I learned in that course, but I can recall having lots of unanswered questions, questions that the professor, a very bright young physicist, couldn't answer either. And so, time -- past, present and future -- this immaterial "thing" that is such an integral part of our creation seems to defy our attempts to really grasp it.

But I'm not going to discuss cosmological time because, as I said, it gives me a headache. I'd much rather think of time as it manifests itself in our mundane, human, day-to-day world. Let me give you an example. A few days ago I was reading Christopher Dawson's book, The Making of Europe, a book I've read several times over the years. But this time, for the first time, I noticed a comment he made in the introduction. Remarking on the extraordinary technical and societal changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Dawson stated, "...so far as the externals of life are concerned, we are further from the world of our great-grandparents than they were from the world of Charlemagne."

Now that comment took me by surprise. But when I considered that Dawson wrote this in 1932, I realized he was probably correct. My great-grandparents were all born before the Civil War and so Dawson was writing about people born in the eighteenth century. The Industrial Revolution was in its infancy. There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no central heating, no refrigeration, no telephones, no radio, no automobiles, railroads, or airplanes -- none of the "necessities" that make our lives so much easier today. Read a Jane Austen novel (c. 1800) and the absence of these basic elements of the infrastructure of our lives today becomes very apparent. Just ask yourself, what did the Bennett family in Pride and Prejudice have that Charlemagne didn't? Let's see...nicer furniture, better art on the walls, maybe better water pumps (although pumps have been around for 5,000 years), better musical instruments, better timekeeping devices and navigational instruments, better weapons (cannons, muskets, pistols) and ships, certainly better manners, but not much else. Indeed, I think you and I would have more difficulty adjusting to Jane Austen's time than she would adjusting to Charlemagne's.

All this has led me to another thought. One thing that differentiates today from the time of our great-grandparents is the speed at which we live and move. Communications, travel, work, the tasks of daily life -- all these things move at remarkable speed today. I can write these words using my PC much more quickly than I can write them with paper and pen. And I can distribute my message to an indefinite number of people in an instant.

Another example: My son called just a few moments ago to ask a question about a college in Georgia. I answered the question, we chatted some more about family things, and then we said goodbye and hung up. 150 years ago that brief exchange of information might have taken several weeks.

And another: My dear wife, Diane, underwent surgery this past week (she's fine, praise God!) and so I've been doing the cooking, not something I'm particularly good at. But last night, for example, I was able to put together a rather tasty meal of chicken cordon bleu (pre-prepared and frozen), spinach, and brown rice, and it took me only 30 minutes. How long would that have taken on a wood stove, beginning with killing the chicken?

Life moved more slowly in the past because the people had no choice. The technology of speed, the compression of time in everyday life, had not yet arrived. I recall once reading that travel and communication were faster and more reliable in the Roman Empire than at any time in history prior to the nineteenth century. And so it seems the pace of everyday life was really very slow for a very long time.

This has caused me to wonder whether our fast-moving lives have altered our very sense of time and its passage. In other words, did time seem to move more slowly for Jane Austen in 1800 than it does for you and me today? Has our perception of time changed with the speed of our lives? Did an hour seem longer to Charlemagne than it does to me? I suppose there's no way of knowing, but it's an interesting question anyway.

One more thought. You've all no doubt heard of the concept of six degrees of separation or what's sometimes called the "human web." It's the idea that no one is more than six people away from any other person on earth. Well, many years ago I encountered a version of this -- a version that relates to the separation among people over time. Let me explain...

I was in eighth grade, in late 1957, and had just finished serving daily Mass on a Saturday morning when an elderly man entered the sacristy. He and my pastor were evidently old friends, because Monsignor Deegan (photo at left) gave the old fellow a warm hug and then introduced him to me. My pastor was no spring chicken himself, but it turned out this visitor was 96 years old. He seemed very proud of his age since it was the first thing he told me about himself. Do the math...he was born in 1861. That was amazing enough for a young lad in 1957, but it was the story he told me that I've never forgotten.

This old man's grandfather, a young French apprentice cabinet-maker, had left France as a young man and settled first in Philadelphia where he perfected his skills. He later moved to Baltimore and continued in the same trade. In 1815 he and his partner were commissioned by Thomas Jefferson to make a piece of furniture in the French style which his grandfather personally delivered to Monticello. As I stood there in the sacristy, he told me how his grandfather loved to retell this story of his meeting with Thomas Jefferson. It was then I realized I knew someone who knew someone who had known Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of our country. And so, at the age of 13, I quite suddenly realized our ancestors were really not that distant. It was my first experience of the strangeness of time. I will never forget the story, even though I can't recall the old man's name.

Earlier today I was looking at two family photos. The first, taken in 1911, depicts three generations: my father (born in 1909) as a toddler with his father (born in the 1870s) and grandfather (born in the 1850s). The other photo, taken in 2002, depicts four generations. It shows me holding my eldest grandson, Pedro, who was just a year old. My father, 93 at the time, is seated. One of my daughters (Pedro's mom who was then expecting her second baby) and both my sons are also in the photo. If Pedro lives to be 80, the lives of the six generations of family members in these two photos -- my father being the one person in both photos -- will span approximately 225 years. Somehow that just boggles my mind. I've included the two photos below...
3 Generations in 1911: my grandfather, father and great-grandfather (L to R)
4 Generations in 2002; my elder daughter, my younger son, my father, my elder son, Pedro & me (L to R)

Yes, time is a very strange commodity, one of the true miracles of creation. And because we live in time, and are so totally immersed in its inescapable being, the idea of eternity, of a timelessness beyond the material created universe, is truly beyond our understanding. It gives new meaning to St. Paul's words, "What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him" [1 Cor 2:9].

Should be interesting.

God's peace...

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