A Meditation on the Mystery of Time

I open our New Year’s Eve late night Mass (11:15 PM) with the observation that we begin Mass in one year and end in the next. New Year’s Eve highlights the mysterious passage between years. In a way I suppose it is no more mysterious than the passage from Thursday to Friday or from 10:00 AM to 10:01 AM.

In one sense, nothing could be simpler than time. I might ask you, “What time is it?” You might reply, “It’s 1:15.” Simple! But time has mysteries about it.

What is time? Some say it’s merely a measure of change, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense because change doesn’t occur at a steady pace at all.

Some say it’s just another way of measuring distance in the space-time continuum. Time and distance are certainly related. To look out at the stars at night is to look into the past; it has taken millions of years for the light from some stars to reach us over vast distances through the vacuum of space. Even the light from our sun is eight minutes old before it reaches us.

But there’s more to time than distance, and we all know it. There are several different words for time in Greek. Chronos refers to clock time. Kairos encompasses a complex notion of time experienced subjectively. Sometimes ten minutes can seem like an hour, but there are other times when an hour can pass by swiftly. Further, things can seem fitting at certain times but not at others. Kairos thus expresses an elastic notion of time. Finally, there is aeon (eternity, or the fullness of time). I’ll comment more on aeon below.

Every year at this point I ponder the mystery of time, probably because time is so much on our minds. As I do so, I am mindful that most of us think we know what time is until we’re asked to define it in some meaningful way. It reminds me of what St. Augustine once said about another mystery: the Trinity. If someone asks me to define time, I am tempted quote St. Augustine: “If you don’t ask me, I know. If you ask me, I don’t know.” So time, while plain and simple on one level, is mysterious on other levels.

I cannot list all such mysteries, but consider these examples:

The Mystery of Time’s Elasticity

We like to think that time is unvarying, that 10 minutes here is the same as 10 minutes there. But science has largely disproved that. For example, as an object approaches the speed of light, time slows down. Further, strong gravitational forces also slow down time. On a very large planet with strong 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 much of a difference, but the law of relativity does demonstrate that time does not pass equally everywhere. In a way, it is almost like a comparing a large, lumbering elephant to a tiny mouse. As the mouse scurries across the floor (pursued by my cat!) its speed is amazing, almost as if the mouse were operating in a different time frame.

The Mystery of Life Spans

Why are the life spans of different species so different? Like me, my cat Daniel is a mammal; our physiology is quite similar in most respects. Yet his clock is likely to expire after about 15 years while mine is more likely to make it closer to 80 years. Certain turtles can live up to 150 years. Many types of parrots can live to be over 100, while other birds live only 10 to 15 years. Most fish live only a few years, but carp can live up to 100 years. We all seem to have a clock, a designated life span. But that life span seems quite variable even among very similar animals. We seem to carry the mystery of time within us. I have never heard a satisfying explanation of the wide variability in life spans.

The Mystery of our “Inner Clock”

Most of our demarcations of time are clearly rooted in the celestial cycle. A day is the cycle of the earth rotating on its axis. A year is the cycle of the earth orbiting the sun. A month (a least originally) is rooted in the cycle of the moon orbiting the earth (“month” is just a mispronunciation of “moonth”). Seasons result from the earth’s trajectory around the sun as well as the tilt of the earth’s rotational axis in relation to the plan of its orbit. More mysterious is the 7-day cycle we call the “week.” Where does it come from? Human beings in most cultures seem to have a need to “reset the clock” every seven days. The Genesis account of creation in seven days, surely influenced the Judeo-Christian culture, but other cultures show a similar tendency toward seven days. Where does the seven-day week come from? It’s mysterious. As humans, we seem have some inner clock that needs resetting at about that frequency.

The Mystery of Eternity

Finally, there is the mystery of what we call “eternity.” Most people misunderstand the word simply to mean a very 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.” 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 graphic of the clock at the upper right. It shows 2:00 (let’s assume in the afternoon). That means that 10:00 AM is in the past while 6:00 PM is in the future. But consider the dot at the center of the clock. At that spot, 10:00 AM, 2:00 PM, and 6:00 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; He lives in eternity. God lives in the fullness of time. For God, the past and the 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 whether you or I will get to Heaven. He is not watching history unfold like a movie. In eternity, thousands of years ago is just as present as is thousands of years from now.

Scripture hints at God’s eternity in numerous passages:

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).

Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be (Ps 139, 15).

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 God’s name: “I AM.” In this name there is no past and no future, just an eternal now (the present tense). Jesus declared to the crowds, Before Abraham ever was, I AM (John 8:58). This 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:

Daily Reflections on Faith

Archdiocese of Washington: Year of Faith series

Written by:

Dominican Brothers of the Province of St. Joseph

The Archdiocese of Washington, DC is hosting daily reflections on its Facebook page for the Year of Faith.  Have you missed them?  Today we are starting the next weekly series on hope.  Please visit our page and “like” us, so you can follow along with the rest of the series.  Here is the roundup of the previous week’s reflections.

Theme: Faith.

1.  What is faith?

When God comes in power and reveals Himself to us—we listen. Faith means putting our entire selves at God’s disposal, our minds and hearts. But faith isn’t an exercise of our ordinary human powers. Grace comes before faith and prompts it. Grace runs along with our minds and hearts, elevating them from within to reach up to Him. Grace makes our faith perfect. Faith is a gift. “What do you have that you have not received?” We are saved by grace through faith. Faith makes us pleasing to God.

Do you want to grow in faith? Ask for it.

2. What does it mean to have a crisis of faith?

It is common to talk about crises within the Church. One crisis that pervades our times is a crisis of faith. Faith reminds us that it takes more than our eyes to see. Faith teaches us to look for the cause, rather than the effect – the source rather than the solution. By faith we can know the Truth. By faith we can truly see.

Does your faith make you see the world differently?

3. How are faith and understanding related?

The relationship between faith and understanding reminds us that faith is neither blind nor ignorant. How does this work? Through faith, the mind is wed to God. Although faith is shrouded in darkness, God gives us real understanding in faith. The gift of understanding is a gift of the Holy Spirit and helps us to know the Truth more deeply than our eyes can see. God gives us this ability to “see within.” He allows us to have an intuitive understanding.

Which divine mysteries does the Lord want you to understand more deeply?

4. How can we help those who do not have faith?

Ultimately, faith is God’s grace working in us to understand and believe things far beyond our natural abilities. We cannot simply argue someone into believing unless God works in their heart. Still, God can work through us to present the truths of the faith to others and remove confusion or misunderstandings about them. We should try our best to present the truths of the faith clearly to others, but even more we should lift up those who do not believe in our prayers, asking God to give them the grace of faith.

Take a moment and pray for someone who doesn’t have the Catholic faith.

5. How can we grow in faith?

Faith lifts us beyond our human nature to believe in supernatural truths, but it does not contradict that human nature. We see this clearly in the Virgin Mary. By faith she believed that “nothing was impossible for God” as was able to assent with her whole will to His plan. But her faith did not simply replace her reason, as we read how she “pondered all these things in her heart.” Following her example we can seek to more perfectly understand the truths of our faith and assent to them, even when it seems beyond our natural understanding.

Having trouble with something? Pray a “Hail Mary.” Ask for our Mother’s intercession.

Please don’t forget to visit our Facebook page and “like” it to follow this week’s daily reflections on the theme “hope.”

Beyond Creation

Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?

Archdiocese of Washington: Year of Faith series

Written by:

Dominican Brothers of the Province of St. Joseph

No sooner had God led Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt and slavery, did they forsake Him and pursue idols.  Moses told the people to prepare themselves to worship the Lord, and he himself went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments.  Meanwhile, the people pestered Aaron the high priest and had him melt down their gold and form it into a golden calf.

Aaron proclaimed to the people, “Tomorrow is a feast of the Lord!” (Ex 32:5).  And they proclaimed, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Ex 32:4).

The God who created them and liberated them was hardly enough for them.  They also wanted a God they could control.  They rejected Him, and refashioned Him in their own image and likeness.

Today’s “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?” question points to the fact that God is “transcendent.”  To say that God is transcendent is to say He is beyond creation – that means He exists and acts in a way far above, and far superior to earthly, and creaturely existence.

St. Paul preached this to the Greeks– notorious worshipers of idols– in the Areopagus.  “We ought not to think that the divinity is like an image fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination,” he says (Acts 17:29).

“The God who made the world and all that is in it,” St. Paul says, “does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything” (Acts 17:24-25).  “Rather,” St. Paul says, “it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).

We do not relate to God as equals.  We depend completely on Him.  He doesn’t depend at all on us.  The Greek gods are just like us, but bigger and stronger.  God is not on a scale of comparison with us.

If God is truly beyond creation, does this make Him too distant from us?  St. Paul didn’t think so.  He continues to say that, “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 1:28). St. Paul thinks that God is very close to us.  And this can only be because God and creation aren’t equals. God existed apart from creation. God isn’t part of creation. God doesn’t depend on it. But the reverse is true.  Creation depends on God.  It exists because it receives being from Him at every moment.  And it receives being and existence from Him in the inmost and deepest part of itself. St. Augustine says that God “is higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self” (CCC 300).

It is also why this Creator God can become the Incarnate God.    The eternal Word of God became man from the Virgin Mary almost two thousand years ago. He has a complete human nature, both body and soul. This is the God whom we await this Advent.

Join us on December 13th for our next “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?” post.

Please don’t forget to follow our questions on the Archdiocese of Washington Facebook page.

Is It Natural to Desire God?

Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?

Archdiocese of Washington: Year of Faith series

Written by:

Dominican Brothers of the Province of St. Joseph

To outsiders, religious people can seem like entirely different kinds of people – a bit strange sometimes, fanatics to some, archaic at times, and a bit superstitious.

This is all to say that, to some people, religious beliefs are thought to work like emotions.  That is, sometimes you get sad, and sometimes you don’t.  Some days you feel this way, and some days you feel that way.  Some people are happy, and others aren’t.  They conclude: some people believe in God – this god or that god – and others don’t.  There are all sorts of opinions and all sorts of people.

However, the answer to today’s “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?” question clarifies the true nature of the desire that human beings have for God.

The reality is that all human beings have a natural desire for God.  The desire in our hearts for God does not come from any mere or passing conversation we might have with our friends, nor does this desire for God well up in our hearts principally from an inspiring book we’ve just read, or from a movie.  The desire that human beings can and do have for God is not like an emotion – it’s not a fleeting sensibility that some have and others don’t.  The desire for God is written into our very nature as human beings.  Every single person has it.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say: “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for”(CCC 27).

If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that there is a hunger for the Truth deep in our hearts.  It is not just in some of us; it is deep in the heart of every human being.  It is our desire for the infinite, the perfect, and for Love itself.  We desire to experience the fullness to which we are called, but this fullness can only be fulfilled in God.

The Second Vatican Council said it this way: “The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 19)

Love allows us to reach from the confines of our own limitations and connects us to its very source, who is God Himself.

Saint Augustine said it best: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.”

Join us on November 29th for our next “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?” post.

Please don’t forget to follow our questions on the Archdiocese of Washington Facebook page.

Image and Likeness

Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?

Archdiocese of Washington: Year of Faith series

Written by:

Dominican Brothers of the Province of St. Joseph

Once, when I was a fifth-grader, a friend’s mother was giving me a ride home after his birthday party.  During that half hour ride home, I talked and joked with both of them.  When we finally arrived at my house, my dad was there it took less than a minute for her to light up and say,  “You are your father’s son!” It’s true; I am just like my father, who always has had a particular way of joking around with others.

I think this is a good starting point for our next question in the, “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-grader?” series, which is about our being created in the image and likeness of God.  Now, we all know what it means to say that someone is “a striking image” of his father.  Beyond physical similarities, there are many likenesses in personality and temperament which we see in parents and children.

But how can we be in God’s “image?”  What sort of “likeness” or similarity can we have to God?

It’s easy to start with what it can’t be.  We don’t have the same chin or smile as God does.  If we’re going to find out how we’re like God we’re going to have to look higher.

The book of Genesis is a fruitful place to start our reflection.  It recounts God’s creation of man in two stages.  It says that, “then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).  This account portrays man as having two essential principles.  He is formed from “the dust of the ground,” made of stuff like all animals are.  But there’s more– he also has the breath of life blown into his nostrils.  There is something higher in man than mere matter.  Man also has a soul.

It is finally here that we see our likeness to God.  Because of our soul we have the power to know and to love.  Rocks and stones, trees and plants are only things. But because of our soul, “the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something but someone” (CCC 357).    For, “of all visible creatures only man is “able to know and love his creator”” (CCC 356).    This grounds all of the awesome abilities which human beings have– of entering into communion with other persons, of responding to God in grace, and responding to God in faith and love (CCC 357).  No other animal tells jokes, prays, gets married or writes poems.  No other animal searches for happiness and meaning in life.

God’s creation of man is indeed very special.  The Psalmist asks God about this and wonders, saying:

Yet you have made him little less than a god,

crowned him with glory and honor.

You have given him rule over the works of your hands,

put all things at his feet (Psalm 8: 6-7)

God created all of the visible creation for us.  But He also gave us an additional gift: the ability to give all of it back to Him in love.

Join us on November 15th for our next “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?” post.

Please don’t forget to follow our questions on the Archdiocese of Washington Facebook page.

Halloween and the Communion of Saints?

Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?

Archdiocese of Washington: Year of Faith series

Written by:

Dominican Brothers of the Province of St. Joseph


Halloween is one night of the year when adults and children alike seem to be full of imagination for the realm of the dead.  Maybe it is a fascination with ghosts and goblins, or maybe it is more sinister than that, but there is a profoundly Christian explanation for Halloween, and it has to do with today’s “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?” question, and the Communion of Saints.

There is no coincidence that the world is fascinated with the realm of the dead on the evening of October 31st, which is the night before All Saints Day – that day when the Church celebrates the lives of those whom we know have made it to heaven.

The first thing the doctrine of the Communion of Saints should teach us – whether we’ve graduated from the fifth grade yet or not – is that there is a bridge between this life and the next – between the land of the living and the land of the dead.  Jesus Christ is that bridge, and He makes heaven possible.

Every human person will continue to exist after death, as every one of us is created by God with an immortal soul.  This is not to say that all of us will go straight to heaven when we die.  The ghoulish character of Halloween should remind us that not all of us are saints.  Someone recently reminded me that you have to be made perfect to go to heaven.  For all of us who are yet far from perfect, this gives us pause to reflect and to pray about what we merit in this life – and to consider what happens after death.

But, the Communion of Saints is not just about the souls in heaven; neither does this phrase simply refer to the canonized saints.  In fact, the Communion of Saints refers to (D) all the faithful living and dead. As the Second Vatican Council reminded us, there is a universal call to holiness.  That is, we are all, in fact, called to become saints by God’s grace.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us the context, “After confessing ‘the holy catholic Church,’ the Apostles’ Creed adds ‘the communion of saints.’ In a certain sense this article is a further explanation of the preceding: ‘What is the Church if not the assembly of all the saints?’ The communion of saints is the Church.” (CCC 946)

All of the faithful – both living and dead – make up the Communion of Saints, and this Communion makes up the Church.  This is the way that we are joined together as believers. The love that unites us in Jesus Christ unites us even beyond the grave.  As The Catechism says, it is a “communion in holy things (sancta)’ and ‘among holy persons (sancti).” (CCC 948)

The goal is heaven, as my grandmother liked to say.  However, few of us have an imagination for heaven these days, it seems to me.  While some may argue for Halloween’s merits, it seems it would benefit all of us to know of this night’s real meaning of the great splendor of the Communion of Saints, who are present to us from beyond the grave.

In this Year of Faith, it is well to remember that faith joins us in a real way with all the faithful souls living and dead.  Faith makes this possible by joining us to God Himself.

Join us on November 8th for our next “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?” post.

Please don’t forget to follow our questions on the Archdiocese of Washington Facebook page.

The immeasurable riches of His grace

Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?

Archdiocese of Washington: Year of Faith series

Written by:Dominican Brothers of the Province of St. Joseph

As frustrating and humiliating as our own bad decisions in life can be, watching a loved one make a drastic mistake is often much worse. How are we supposed to help someone to see how wrong the choice he is making is when he utterly refuses to listen to us and see the error of his ways?  This problem is the one St. Monica faced with her son, Augustine.  Though she tried to instill the Christian faith in her son, it did not take root. She fell back to the only resource she had left: fervent prayer.

For his part, Augustine felt he had given Christianity a fair shake but found it lacking.  He was very intellectual, and so he sought the truth in many philosophies and religions, but none of them satisfied him.  His restless heart eventually led him back to the Catholic Church.  Augustine became one of the foremost defenders and preachers of the Catholic faith.  How did Augustine become a staunch Catholic after being a critical despiser of the faith?

The virtue of faith, that confidence to trust in God and cleave to the truths he has revealed (cf. CCC 154), is a gift.  It’s not irrational to trust and believe in God, but we cannot simply convince ourselves to do so without His grace.  We see this quite clearly in Augustine’s conversion.  Initially, he found Christianity’s arguments unconvincing, and he felt the Bible was simplistic and unsophisticated. It took a good preacher – St. Ambrose – to open Augustine’s mind to understand the spirit and meaning of the Scriptures.  Augustine began to love the Scriptures, not in spite of, but because of the lowliness and humility of the truths they presented.  After years of thoughtful searching he overcame his critical objections to the Christian faith, but he still could not truly believe it.  Our merely human efforts are not enough to bring about true faith.  We can only do so if our will is “moved by God through grace.” (CCC 155).  Augustine’s conversion shows the power of God’s action in a truly remarkable way.

Some friends brought Augustine the story of the first monks of Egypt who left everything to follow Jesus Christ.  He considered his own weakness and was distraught.  Why did he keep delaying?  Why not commit now? As he became more upset and more distraught, he withdrew into the garden.  Then he heard a child’s voice call out “take up and read.”   Taking it to be a command from God, he picked up a nearby book of the letters of Paul.  One verse pierced through his heart.  In that moment of profound grace He says, “[a]ll the shadows of doubt were dispelled.”

St. Augustine’s is a profound case that sheds light on the truth that faith is a gift.  Who does Augustine have to thanks for his faith?  There is himself, in part, for his honest searching, St. Ambrose, for his preaching and teaching, and his mother for her consistent prayer, to name only a few.  Of course, first and foremost, he has God to thank, as is made clear in his final conversion, for the grace necessary to assent freely to the truth, as well as for the countless graces offered in preparing him to accept that gift.  When considering friends or family that seem far from God, we should not despair of our efforts to lead them to Jesus Christ, most especially through our prayers, for it is only His grace that will lead them to believe.

“I know Him in whom I have believed.”

Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?

Archdiocese of Washington: Year of Faith seriesWritten by:

Dominican Brothers of the Province of St. Joseph

You see the computer screen flicker and a blue screen pop up.  You read there has been a fatal error.  Not knowing what to do, you take out your cell phone and call your brother-in-law.

I think we’ve all had this experience before.  In the world today, no one can be an expert in everything.  Whether it’s a plumber, an electrician, a mechanic—or your brother-in-law the computer guru—we need to trust experts in different fields.  Having faith in matters of human expertise is so normal we hardly think about it.  We couldn’t live in society, or pass a single day if we didn’t.

Why does faith make sense?  The answer is fairly simple.  We look for people who are certified, who have experience, and who know how things work.   Since they have “vision” or direct knowledge about their skill or field of expertise, it makes sense to enter into a relationship of trust with them and rely on them.

This is why the Catholic faith also makes sense.  The substance of the Catholic faith is above earthly experience.  We won’t literally “see” the truths of the faith until we are with God in heaven.  But God knows these truths.  God “sees” them.  And in heaven, we will see them finally.  Since we cannot see them now, we have to rely on God’s authority to receive them.  This is what St. Thomas Aquinas is getting at in his famous hymn about the Eucharist where he says, “what God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;/ Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.”

This shows us the connection between our personal relationship with God and believing all of God’s truth.  This is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that faith is first of all “a personal adherence of man to God,” and “at the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed” (CCC 150).  Believing in God, we also believe everything He tells us.  So the Catechism says that believing means first believing the Person and then believing the truth, “by trust in the person who bears witness to it” (CCC 177).

Jesus Christ Himself—both God and man— revealed the fullness of the truth of God.  The apostles handed on the truth of Jesus Christ in its fullness, and entrusted to the bishops of the Church in communion with the Pope the authority to teach in their name.  So when we receive the faith of the Church we receive it, “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).  For this reason, our personal faith must always completely acknowledge the Church’s faith to be authentic.  Perhaps this is why St. Cyprian says, “No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother” (CCC 181).


As we gaze upon God in faith, let us exclaim that intensely personal and creedal confession of the Apostle Thomas:  “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28).