I assisted at a wedding this past weekend that encompassed both space and time. The groom was a White American, the Bride was Ethiopian. Now you will surely understand that space is involved, for Ethiopia is far from the USA. But time is also involved here, for the African notion of “Saturday at 10:00 AM” is not the same as the American one, at all.
Be on time. Not! – Yes, the wedding was scheduled for Saturday at 10:00 AM. The priest from Ethiopia cautioned the wedding party at the Friday rehearsal (which started late), “You must be on time tomorrow, for the organist is from America and must be somewhere else at noon. And the parish is American, and Americans go by the clock! So, be on time!”
Come Saturday morning and it is just before 10:00 AM. The groom’s side of the Church is filled with White Americans. On the bride’s side, not a soul! The wedding finally began about 11:15 AM and many of the the lovely Ethiopian bridesmaids felt hurried, at that! “Why are you rushing us?” one said, “This is a moment to be enjoyed!” The priest from Ethiopia was embarrassed but not surprised. “Neither am I surprised” I reassured him. “If the organist must leave, I will supply the recessional .”
No I was not not surprised. For I have come to discover in various ways, that we Americans (and some Europeans) are really the few for who “the clock” has all that much to say. For most of the rest of the world, “the clock” is more like the speed limit sign is for us in America, a “suggestion,” a general “parameter,” more than something to be all that particular about.
A few stories to illustrate:
- A friend of mine went to the Dominican Republic a few years back. He called the local Catholic parish and inquired (in Spanish) of the priest: “What times are Masses this weekend?” After a pause the priest said, “Sunday.” “I know” said my friend, “But what time on Sunday?” Again a puzzled silence, and the priest said again, “Sunday.” “Hmm…?” pondered my friend…. Then, like a light going off the priest said, “Ah! I sense by your accent that you are an American, si?” “Yes” said my friend. “Well here in our Country, you see,” said the priest, “We gather on Sunday morning, and when most have arrived, we begin…So, you see, Mass is Sunday morning, when all have arrived! Please come and join us on this Sunday morning, you are most welcome!”
- Once, at my last parish, we celebrated the First Mass of a new priest, Fr. Carlos. It was scheduled for 8:00 pm Saturday, and the whole extended Latino family had joyously decorated the hall that afternoon, after the Ordination. Silly me, I actually had the Church unlocked and ready to go at 8:00 pm. But there was not a soul in sight, nor a car in the parking lot. By 8:45 pm the first people began to arrive. Slowly folks trickled in. Now it is 9:15 pm and the new priest arrives. Along with him an entourage of other priests. By 9:30 pm I, the ugly American, am fully anxious. I gathered the priests and said, “Fathers, we must vest now! Please, come to the sacristy at once.” One of the older Latino priests looked at me and said, “Father! Do not worry of the time, we live in eternity!” “Fine Father,” I responded, “But I have to be up for 8:00 AM Mass! Let’s get this Mass underway.” The priests looked a me with pity and began to vest.
- In my own experience with the African American Community I have also come to experience the reality of what many playfully call “colored people time” (aka “CP Time”). Now we’re not as bad as being an hour or more late, but our 11:00 am Mass never begins at 11:00 am, usually 10 past, or even 15 past the hour. Neither do we have a fixed time when Mass has to be over. The 8:00 AM Mass usually goes toward 9:15 or 9:30. The 11:00 am Mass ends toward 1:00 pm. Why rush when you’re with the Lord? One time I got Mass done in under an hour, and a rather angry African American woman came to me and said, “Next time you don’t have enough to say Father, send the Deacon over.” For, a Mass in under hour, seems something of a disgrace to an African American matriarch.
- I once asked a Latino friend, “How do you catch a plane in your culture, what with time being so vague?” “Well,” said he, “We go to the airport, and if the plane has already left, (and they never leave on time), then we go to the lady at the booth and book another one. We are not anxious, these things happen.”
Yes, anxious, I guess that is the key word. We Americans do fret the clock. There is an old expression, Let not the sands of time get in your lunch. In other words, the moment is to be savored, there will be time to take care of other things. An old gospel song says, Don’t let this moment pass you by.
I am not convinced our American way is so bad. In our culture, timeliness is a way of showing respect, and is experienced as a kind of charity. Being on time ensures everyone is both respected and treated with kindness. Further it means that things go smoothly and are well coordinated. Without this agreed upon framework, most Americans are bewildered and angry and feel personally disrespected.
But I have also come to experience that our close attention to clock time is not shared by most of the rest of the world. Further, they mean no disrespect when they are incredibly late by American standards. In fact, I usually get a blank look when I exhibit consternation that a someone is almost 1.5 hours late for a wedding. They just don’t “get it” when I say, “Why are you so late?!” I might as well be saying, “Why whirlwind major drum marcher flibberdy-jibbet?!” I just get a blank stare from them, as if to say, “Late?” They find my exasperation strange and unfathomable and look to others around them who just shrug.
We Americans control things by measuring them. In the careful measuring of time, land, money, assets, polls, statistics, and scientific data, we feel a sense of control, and often try to show superiority to others with command of such facts. There is something consoling about the notion that we know we are 93 million miles from the sun, our planet circles it in 365 .25 days, that this is Tuesday, and 95% of American have some belief in God. Further the average temperature in DC is 84 degrees for this day. Yes, we feel better, some how in control, when we know these things and have them carefully measured.
And as for time, I surely feel in control when I know that I have a meeting at 10, and appointments at 2 and 3 pm. Now I know what my day will be like. Or so I think.
But it is fascinating to me that so many others in the world neither need or value this sort of control. For them it seems OK to have general plans and then, let things unfold, rather than attempt to control and manipulate all outcomes. Yes, a completely different way of living.
And we may boast that we have the strongest and most efficient economy in the world on account of this. The Chinese and Japanese also have strong economies and, as far as I know, they also have a precision about clock time.
But at what price do we have these things? Just over 40% of Americans are prescribed psychotropic drugs to deal with the stress of our culture (Oh!, did I just quote a statistic? Sorry! Some how knowing numbers makes me feel in control).
I am not sure what is best, but huge numbers of Africans, Central and South Americans are just not obsessed with time like we are. Neither are Middle Easterners. It seems a little humbling to me that so many others live in a completely different world than I do, time wise. I am not saying we are wrong, only that billions live differently, and are more focused on the present, than what comes next, according to a mechanical clock. I frankly don’t know how they do it, so wedded am I to a clock. But they do.
God too reminds us that for him a thousand years are like a day, or a watch in the night. Further, eternity is not chronological time, it is the fulness of time. And for those of us who are obsessed with clock time, God cautions, wait, be still, have patience, be not anxious. The Lord says he is coming soon, but he does not mean it according to our clocks. And to those who insist on knowing times and seasons, he says we know not the day or the hour, and it is not for us to know the times or the seasons of God’s plan (eg. Matt 24:36; Acts 1:7).
Does anybody really know what time it is? No, actually we do not. But time is something that surely divides us. Some of us see the clock as a precision instrument to be strictly followed, others of us see it as a sort of speed limit sign that is broadly interpreted.
I like our Western precision, but admit it comes at a price for indeed, too often the sands of time get in our lunch.
In this video, Fr. Francis Martin talks a it about the concept of time in the Middle East and the flexible notions of time that predominate in the Scriptures. The context of his reflection is the incident of the cleansing of the Temple. John says Jesus did that at the beginning of his ministry, and the synoptic Gospels place it at the end of Jesus’ ministry. The discrepancy about time bothers us Westerners, but time was less an obsession to the evangelists who used time creatively and theologically, and were less obsessed with measurements. This video is an excerpt. Please see all of Fr. Martin’s videos here: Fr Martin Videos
Photo Credit above: Slick.net