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The Mystery of Time

January 1, 2012

Time, what could be more clear? What time is it? 10:00 pm! Next question. We think at times that nothing could be simpler than time. But time has mysteries about it.

Every New Year I ponder the mystery of time, I guess because time is so much on our mind. And as I ponder time, I am mindful that most of us think we know what time is, until we are actually asked to define it in some meaningful way. Something makes me think of what St Augustine once said about another mystery (the Trinity). And thus if someone asks me to define time I am tempted to say with Augustine: If you don’t ask me, I know. If you ask me, I don’t know. So time, while plain at one level is mysterious at other levels.

I cannot list all such mysteries, but consider a few puzzlements about time.

  1. The Mystery of Time’s Elasticity – We like to think that time is unvarying. 10 minutes here, is the same as 10 minutes there. But science has already disproved that. For example, as an object approaches the speed of light, time slows down. Further, strong gravitational forces also slows down time. On a very large planet with stronger gravitational forces I would age less rapidly than on a smaller planet. Granted, it would take a huge difference in speed or gravity to be able to observe a big difference, but the Law of Relativity does demonstrate that time does not pass equally everywhere. In a way it is almost symbolized by a large, lumbering elephant compared to a tiny little mouse. As the mouse scurries across the floor (pursued by my cat!) the speed is amazing, almost as if the mouse were in a different time frame.
  2. The Mystery of Lifespans – And speaking of animals, why are life spans so different? My cat Daniel is, like me a mammal. He has heart and lungs, very similar physiology in most respects. Yet his clock is set to 15 years, my clock is set to 80 years. Certain turtles can live up to 150 years, Many types of parrots can live to be over 100. Other birds live only 10 to 15 years. Most fish live only a few years, but Carp (a fish) live up to 100 years. And so on. We all see to have a clock, a designated life span. But that life span seems quite variable even among very similar species. We seem to carry the mystery of time in us. I have never heard a satisfying answer to the wide variability of life spans.
  3. The Mystery of Eternity – Lastly there is the mystery of what we call “eternity.” Most people misunderstand the word eternity simply to mean a long, long, time. But that is not what is meant by the word. When the Greeks coined the word eternity, (Aeon) they meant by it “the fullness of time.” That is to say, Eternity is the past, present and future all being experienced at once. I cannot tell you what this is like, but I can illustrate it. Look at the clock to the upper right. The time is 1:15 in the afternoon. That means that 10:00 AM is in the past and 6:00 pm is in the future. But consider the dot at the center of the clock and see that at that spot 10 AM, 1:15 PM, and 6 PM are all the same, they are equally present to the center. We live our life in serial time, on the outer edge of the clock. But God does not. God lives in eternity. God lives in the fullness of time. For God, past, and future are the same as the present. God is not “waiting” for things to happen. All things just are. God is not waiting and wondering if you or I will get to heaven. He is not watching history unfold like a movie. In eternity, 10,000 years ago is just as present as 10,000 years from now. Scripture hints at God’s eternity in numerous passages. For example, But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. (2 Peter 3:8). Psalm 139 says, Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be. (Ps 139, 15). Psalm 90 says, For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. (Ps 90:4). And then there is simply the God’s name: “I AM” In this Name, there is no past, no future, just an eternal now, the present tense. Jesus declared to the crowds, “Before Abraham ever was, I AM.” (John 8:58). So here is the most awesome mystery of time, the fullness of time, eternity.

Ponder God’s glory and the mystery of time!

Here’s a remarkable video on the mystery of time.

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  1. Taylor says:

    You have validated the vision I have also had of eternity – being directly in the center of all where all is present at once. From the center, all can be seen. All comes from the center and moves out to the edge. Interestingly, if all that is appears as a dot from the center, and if all dots are not linear in respect to each other, that seems to mean that each dot represents a different linear strand of time and existence, and that time stretches and contracts because it folds out from the center. But what if that center was present within each of us?

  2. jj says:

    Lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the earth. Eternity has already begun for me. I’m so glad. Wanna go anybody?. It’s a wonderful life. Come go with me.

  3. K. Vonnegut says:

    I give you the Tralfamadorian greeting: Hello. Farewell. Hello. Farewell. Eternally connected, eternally embracing. Hello. Farewell.

    Tralfamadorian speaker: We know how the world ends and it has nothing to do with Earth, except that it gets wiped out too.
    Billy Pilgrim: Really? How does it end?
    Tralfamadorian speaker: While we’re experimenting with new fuels, a Tralfamadorian test pilot panics, presses the wrong button, and the whole universe disappears.
    Billy Pilgrim: But you have to stop him. If you know this, can’t you keep the pilot from pressing …
    Tralfamadorian speaker: He has always pressed it, and he always will. We have always let him, and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.

    • Bender says:

      Odd where we sometimes get great insights into the Faith, sometimes even in totally non-religious works (even by folks who were at best agnostic). And further odd that we might stubble upon such things by happenstance, such as coming across a light night movie.

      Looking back, Slaughterhouse Five (movie and book) made quite an influence on me. Maybe not as much as Augustine’s Free Choice of the Will, but it certainly triggered my imagination and provided an understanding into the concepts of (linear) time and eternity in a way that I might not otherwise have grasped.

    • Yes, a pretty good notion of comprehensive time.

  4. Anne says:

    The analogy of the clock’s center point was very helpful! I often feel like my life is not the “hour hand” or the “minute hand” but rather the red “”second hand”…racing frantically through each day. It is good to visualize that God is at the center…never changing, always present. Also, using your analogy, the closer we are to Him at the center point, the smaller the circumference of the circle we travel…even on the fast moving red second hand. Staying close to Him, in the end, is a much less exhausting journey through life.

  5. Doc B. says:

    Dear Monsignor Pope; A very fine look at a wondrous and perplexing topic…many thanks! It is indeed important to differentiate between the cycle of astronomical time from the perception of time. The former is a construct…an empirical “physical” measure based on the relationship between fixed points..where something is, where it was, and where it will be (such as the rotation of a planet in space). The constraints here are in the labels that one provides for marking and determining time. The latter is a function of how one perceives oneself in the world and is dependent on situational awareness. For example, as we read or explore the internet, we find that we do not cognitively (consciously) monitor time, although physically we continue to do so via our biological (circadian) rhythm. Thus, we are startled by the passage of time which seems to have ‘flown on by’. Military flight mishap investigations reveal that aviators forced to eject from their stricken aircraft have reported ‘feeling’ like time had slowed down…that they were hanging in their parachutes for minutes rather than the few seconds. For them, time seems to expand. There is thus a ‘relativity’ in the perception and marking of time. That is what makes the eternal nature…the ‘timelessness’ of Our Lord so remarkable to us and at times, so difficult to comprehend. It transcends the empirical, and as such can be difficult to grasp. Yet, for so many of us, we can and do. Monsignor, I wish you and all readers of this BLOG a blessed Christmas and (as we say here in Austria) ein Gluckliches Neues Jahr!

  6. Scotty Ellis says:

    A very good subject for meditation. I believe the invention and proliferation of the mechanical clock to be primarily responsible for our mistaken “common sense” of time as an immutable, universal invariant: but this is not to say that the ancients and medievals did not make similar mistakes. Of course, I have to be careful saying they were “mistaken,” since time is such a fluid concept anyway.

    I would argue that the Christian tradition has examples of both a “mistaken” concept of time as well as a concept of time that is more in line with the Theory of Relativity.

    As an example of the former, Christian “universal history” has a quite simplistic understanding of time within creation: because Christian history is absolutely geocentric and all takes place in a region of space-time moving at a similar enough velocity that most of our experiences betray no hint of relativistic time dilation, it has been quite easy for theologians to assume a “universal time line” upon which to mark the events of that history. It is quite easy to say that the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection has “universal implications,” until one realizes that for the majority of the universe these events have not even occurred; indeed, it is quite probable that there are regions of the universe beyond earth’s cosmological horizon (i.e., the receding boundary of the region beyond which our light will never reach and whose light will never reach us) which will never be “simultaneous” with these events at any rate. Furthermore, the objective relationships between such “moments” in salvation history are assumed, while their real relationships are actually relative and subjective, valid only within more or less arbitrarily assumed frameworks. The significance of these shortcomings are unclear to me.

    But I also think that Augustine’s conception of time is beautiful, elegant, and in many ways a completely relevant psychological account of time that preserves the subjective quality of time. Time is a function of memory and recollection, and a remembrance of origins, change, and development that is always linked to a personal journey.

  7. Fr. Andy says:

    May you and Daniel both considerably outlive your preset biological averages!

  8. Andrea Zaccagnino says:

    Dear Monsignor,

    This concept of time as elastic or dilated at higher speeds is a misinterpretation, I believe, of the teory of relativity. I would suggest that what is relative is empirical or “mesured” time. The sequential relationship of an event to an other is not dilated, only our capability of measuring it.

    The mistery of time I cannot explain, I am reading the Fathers and hoping that they can shed som light on the subject.

    Please never stop writing.

    • Not sure why you say this, it is fairly standard as I have come to read of it.

      • Peter Chabot says:

        Dear Msgr Pope,

        I was about to make a similar as Andrea. Please recall that the origin of species through evolution is likewise universally taught. However, any well-reasoned catholic should regard that hypothesis as untenable for a variety of reasons.
        Just as in the case of the hypothesis of evolution, there is sufficient evidence available to conclude that many of the nearly universally taught consequences of the theory of relativity are in fact without rational support. Worse, and this should be enough to suspect dishonesty and outright lies, scientific researchers take part in a game of rooting out and villifying colleagues who question the current “concensus”. Thus the illusion of scientific “dogma” is maintained however without honest debate.
        I myself started questioning various “standard” ideas simply because they could not be reconciled with philosophia perennis. Here is a good place to start:

        Specifically with regard to time, philosophia perennis and common sense teaches us that time is not a physical being. How could anyone be so bold as to claim that time slowed. Time is an accident. It is a measurement of motion. There is no way to measure time apart from comparing states of a physical being in motion. The progress of that motion can be impeded by any number of reasons. There is no evidence nor will there ever be to suggest that time slowed because a clock is counting second more slowly.

    • Scotty Ellis says:

      Just a quick correction: the sequential relationship of one event to another is governed by time dilation, and it is actually possible that different observers will have completely different and even contradictory accounts of the order or simultaneity of events.

  9. Joseph says:

    When I studied scholastic philosophy, time was defined as the measure of motion. It would seem that there can be no time in “eternity” because there is no motion–only that “always was, is now, and ever shall be” Being.

  10. Andrea Zaccagnino says:

    The best example is the light clock ( A photon reflected between two stationary mirrors travels a distance equal to twice the lenght separating the mirrors. We mesure the passing of time as the frequency whith which the photon bounces between the mirrors. If the mirrors moove close to the speed of light the trajectory of the photon goes from a vertical line to a sort of hypotenuse. Now since the theory of relativity tells us that the speed of light is constant it follows that it takes longer for the photon to reach the oppsite mirror. If we are mooving with the clock then the frequency at which the photon bounces between the mirrors slows down. Time has not been dilated, only the reference with which we measure it.

    I really have no clue of what time really is. I only know that this extrapolation of the theory of relativity can be used by secularist to dismiss God altogether. The best example is Stephen Hawking.

  11. Mr. Poe says:

    Having God be at “all times” invokes a very big question: If the almighty already sees everything, does that mean we have no free will? If the almighty already knows how “it’s going to turn out” why bother with us? If our destiny is preordained, why worship? It’s a done deal.

    • Well, seeing by itself does not cause that thing to happen. Suppose I am on a hill and looking down I see you and another car you cannot see about to collide. In effect I can see ahead of time that you are going to collide, and I might even try to warn you. But in fact, you do collide. I did not cause that by foreseeing it. As for knowing ahead of time, here we have a mystery rooted in eternity as a category of time. But that God knows ahead of time our time what your decision will be does not mean he is the secondary cause of it. You remain that and you do in fact do it freely. He simply already knows, i.e. your decision is present to him from all eternity. But simply that He fore-knows you free choice does not mean you are forced to do it.

      • Scotty Ellis says:

        Just a question, Msgr. Pope: due to the doctrine of divine unity, it is impossible to separate or distinguish the acts of God, except as they pertain to the created intellect. Because of this, any distinction between God’s foreknowledge and predestination is ultimately only a distinction in our minds, not a distinction in Him. With this in mind, Doesn’t Mr. Poe’s question still have a certain validity, since the act by which God see’s one’s action is the same act by which God predestines them? If not, what am I misunderstanding?

        • Alan says:

          I can say that the Father is everything that the Son is… except being the Son. I can say the Son is everything the Father is, except being the Father. We can make some distinctions that are true. Here we are just making another distinction between foreknowledge and intervention.

          Foreknowledge is a passive. Predestination is active. That God was the first uncaused cause, means that His fingerprint is on everything from a standpoint of lending His existence to everything in creation. Not by way of actively usurping our will.

          • Scotty Ellis says:

            The doctrine of the Trinity does not contradict the theory of divine unity: Divine unity refers to the Essence or Being of God, which is One, not to the infinite distinction of Divine Persons, which are three. The distinction between foreknowledge and predestination is not a distinction of Divine Persons, and therefore by the doctrine of divine unity we know that the act by which God foreknows the future is the same by which He predestines it.

            These distinctions may be true, but they are only true ad nos, that is, that are only true to us because our intellects are unable to comprehend divine unity. They are not true of God in Himself.

          • Alan says:


            I am not saying the Trinity contradicts the theory of Divine Unity. On the contrary, I am saying the distinctions between persons, is just as safe as making the distinction between passive Foreknowledge and the active Divine Will. To make a distinction is to make a seperation. This is why I brought up that being Father and Son are opposing relations of the one Divine Essence. Yet it is a true distinction to say He cannot be Father and Son. Predestination is a combination of both Foreknowledge and Divine will. So Foreknowledge by itself is not enough to make your claim because it is only an incomplete part of Predestination. We make the distinction between Foreknowledge and Will because we know God is Omniscient, and it is evident that He has a Divine Will. It should also be sufficiently evident that sin is proof that we have our own will, which is not part of the Divine Will.

    • Bender says:

      Mr. Poe —

      You know today what it is that you did yesterday.

      Does this knowledge of yours mean that you had no free will in choosing what you did yesterday?

      Knowing now what you wrote at 3:55 p.m., does that mean that you had no choice to write what you did? Or were you free to write whatever you wanted?

      We know that in November 2008, Barack Obama was elected president. That is an unchangeable reality. Does our knowledge of that event, frozen in time, mean that American voters were nothing more than puppets of pre-determined fate? Furthermore, in December 2012, we will know whether Obama has been reelected or defeated. Does the fact that we will know it then, mean that we have no freedom in voting in November, that there is no point in voting at all?

      • Scotty Ellis says:

        Regardless of whether are choices are truly free, we still have a psychological experience of choice. Furthermore, if determinism were true, whether materialistic or some extreme form of predestination, it would not therefore follow that it is pointless to vote. Our votes still have causal power. Additionally, our ability to predict future choices is still limited, and as such regardless of the truth of free will we would still be in a position of uncertainty vis-a-vis the future.

        As to the question of knowledge vs. freedom, the wrinkle in all this is that God’s knowledge is the same as His essence: that it, whatever He knows, He knows by necessity. It is necessary, not contingent, that God knows that Barack Obama was elected president. This problem along with the unity of God’s foreknowledge and predestination, adds a certain validity to Mr. Poe’s question.

  12. Alan says:

    The clock is a good example. Apb. Fulton Sheen used a similar shape for God with Him being the center of a spoked wheel. We were the spokes. The closer we are to God. The closer we are to each other. The farther we are away from God, the farther we are from each other. It was from “Three to Get Married”. I am about halfway through this fantastic book. My wife who is not Catholic wants to read it too, which is a blessing.

  13. Dave says:

    The subject is most facinating, but also illustrates how finite and egocentric our humanity is. Our understanding of time, for the most part, very limited to only what our very finite senses and minds can comprehend. Even Einstein’s concept of “space-time” is most likely finite compared to the infinite power of God who created this universe, and maybe others that we cannot sense.

  14. Bob at Blue Eye says:

    I am trying to relate this post to one not to long ago about the Healing Hope of Purgatory. As stated in that story probably very few well be close to 100%. Say when I die I need cleansing on my soul that according to earth days it would take ten years to cleanse me so that I could be in the presence of God. However when I die I am in enternity and the past, presence and futher are all now. So if I,thru God’s justice, need to spend ten earth years to cleanse my soul how will this happen, because now is also the futher. Will it be like some Protestant theory that we are zapped clean at the monent of death. This however does not full fill Gods Justice. This is all to much for my poor human mind. Thanks Msgr. Pope for the many wonderful posts. Wish I was in your area so that I could meet you and attend your masses. Question: How do you find time for all of the wonderful daily posts and all of your other duties?

  15. Peter Wolczuk says:

    Consider also how much quicker a clock seems to run at a fun event and how much slower it creeps at something such as a ve-e-ery boring lecture.
    Trying for serious though; as a massive body curves (or facilitates the curving of) space into the “future”, but not our future since we’ve been brought there in our present time by the curving of our immediate environment; could something extremely less massive (hydrogen?) dimple the tiny space immediately around it toward the past that’s not our past? Of course it wouldn’t dimple back as far back as what used to be called “outer space” since that contains near vacuum which is lighter than hydrogen.
    And what if something which was even more massive than the original mass was near the hydrogen so that the dimple going “back” from the hydrogen also went “ahead” to the “future” on its other side? Would that tend to expand the three spatial dimensions of space which we tend to know best into what we call past and future and cause a bubble that’s a considerably smaller version of (not infinite) “fullness of time” that could draw our perception a little toward eternity?
    I admit that I’m speculating considerably here since I’ve only just begun to get back to my first scientific love of physics (thanks to God’s grace) and away from the other sciences which I have less talent for but which so many adults pushed me toward by such things as telling me that Einstein was a mathematician who didn’t like physics and so many other such things that it was only by grace that I found my way back to the fun that I had reading physics texts in my childhood.

  16. Rick DeLano says:

    It has never been demonstrated that time moves at a different rate depending upon the state of motion of a body.

    It has been demonstrated that clocks run at different rates in different frames.

    The cause can be attributed to the forces physically affecting the clock, or to a dilation of time relative to that measured in the observer’s reference frame.

    If Relativity is true, the latter is the case.

    If Relativity is false, then the former is the case.

    My money is on the former possibility; the dark horse.

    Getting a whole lot less dark lately.