Experiencing Sacred Time

The Solemnity of All Saints stands out for me as—well, solemn.  By celebrating the communion of saints as such, the day seems to offer thanksgiving for the fact that we celebrate the saints, for the very existence of the sanctoral cycle.  So every November 1st, I find myself reflecting on the fact of sacred days and times.

Charles Taylor argues that a loss of the sense of sacred time was key in the transition to modernity.  Medieval man experienced times as defined by content and as ordered not only by chronology alone, so that “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997.”  But modern man experiences time as homogeneous and empty, ordered simply by one time’s replacing another in sequence.  Modern man can believe in eternity, says Taylor, but he can’t experience eternity’s penetration into time in a naïve, unreflective way.

Taylor is surely right that this was one strand in the transition to secularity.  But how absolute a doom is modernity?  Can a man today experience sacred time in an immediate way, or will it always be mediated to him through some kind of abstract consideration?  Or will it—even worse—always be constituted by a wistful recollection of a bygone era when Christians really experienced the seasons, like those nostalgic Christmas cards depicting horses and sleighs and Victorian houses?

In this post, I want to describe my own experience of sacred time.  I don’t know whether it would count for Taylor as “immediate” or “naïve,” but there is something immediate and unreflective about it to me.  The experience is complex, because time is complex.

In one way, time is obviously objective. The years roll by whether we attend to them or not. We lose track of time, but time does not lose its grip on us. The earth makes its circuit around the sun and continues its daily rotations, and this gives rise to days and months and years without our even thinking about it.

But in another way, time is inevitably subjective. All that really exists out there is the present moment: the past has gone and the future does not yet exist. It takes a mind to retain all the present moments and bind them together into the one-dimensional, linear existence we call time. No such thing as a rotation of the earth ever exists: what exists is the earth at a given moment with a certain momentum. Of course, the very fact that the present moment exists only as yielding to the next offers an objective grounding for the continuity we see in time. Two different minds observing the earth could not reach two different conclusions about whether it rotated. Still and all, time as such results from a marriage of the objective and the subjective.

What is true of time in general is also true of sacred time. In one way, the significance of this type of day or that is a subjective thing. We invent calendars and systems for tracking time, and if one of the days in our invented system is special or sacred it is at least in part because we notice it and think it so. A day that is special in one culture is not special in another—and indeed may not even be the same day.

And yet sacred time, even considered precisely as something subjective, needs objectivity. We are incapable of considering a time sacred sheerly because we decide it shall be so. Try this as an experiment: pick a day and observe it as unique, special, sacred, whatever. You will find that you cannot do it. What you are observing on that day turns out to be not the day but your decision about the day; the day itself feels insignificant.

For example, a birthday feels significant in part because our culture celebrates birthdays—not all cultures do.  But a birthday also requires the objective fact of birth. Sometimes for convenience my family celebrates a child’s birthday on the nearest weekend rather than on the actual day of birth. When we do, the actual day retains its feeling of specialness; the day of birth feels like the birthday, while the weekend is just a party. Or to take another example, one may remember the anniversary of the death of a dearly departed one, and no one around us experiences the day as different; it is a private affair. Yet even this private, subjective experience requires the objective fact of a death on that day.

This is why the Christian liturgical calendar works.  First there is the objective fact of Christ’s life, of his death and resurrection, of the ascension, or of the death of some saint, or what have you. These took place at some time. Then there is the subjective side: we choose a Gregorian or a Julian calendar, we follow this formula or that for determining Easter, or perhaps the church chooses to observe a saint’s feast the day after his death to avoid conflict with another major day.

The arbitrary elements stand as middle terms between us and the objective facts. We choose a rule by which to determine the day, and from that point on the rule is what it is and therefore the day is what it is. Given the system we have chosen, this day and not any other is the Day.  This logical necessity, this unavoidability, is absolutely necessary for the subjective experience of sacred time. This is why Easter feels like sacred time but World Party Day, National Hug a Newsperson Day, and National Walk Around Things Day simply do not take off. (I am not making these examples up.)

Another domestic example: my daughter was born in Austria on the 20th of the month.  When we moved back to the United States, we continued to celebrate her birthday on the 20th, the date on her birth certificate, even though when she was born it was the 19th in the place where we live now.  Objectively, she turns a year older on the 19th, but a semi-arbitrary system of time-keeping and record-keeping intervenes to determine her birthday as being the 20th.  And it works:  unlike when we transfer a birthday celebration to the nearest weekend, my daughter’s birthday feels subjectively as though it is on the 20th and not on the 19th.  The arbitrary element here was not picked specifically to move my daughter’s birthday.  It is “the system,” and so we experience it as objective relative to a detail like one person’s date of birth.

Incidentally, Church authorities are playing with fire when they transfer feasts about or fiddle with the sanctoral calendar. Yes, they have authority to do these things, because of the arbitrary elements in sacred time. But the more they fiddle, the more the arbitrary predominates over the objective and consequently the less sacred the time feels. The more it feels as though a saint occupies a given day in the calendar by an arbitrary committee decision, the less inherently it can feel like a sacred day. When the Church transfers the Feast of the Ascension to Sunday, my reason insists that the Church can do this, but my imagination cannot help but feel Thursday as a sacred day and Sunday as the party, so to speak. My reason cannot seem to persuade my imagination, which needs the objective and settled. One reason Catholics have less sense of sacred time these days may be this massive fiddling, this predominance of the arbitrary over the settled.

In any case, the liturgical calendar works, and it works because of the combination of the objective and the subjective. It is like sound, which is rooted in airwaves but also requires the hearers’ perception. Airwaves alone are not sound. Nor is it sound when we are “hearing things”—a phrase which is generally used to mean that we are not hearing things. Sound is the two together, the objective “out there” and the subjective taking-it-in.

When I have a birthday, or another significant day in my life, then it feels like music is playing.  Why is the music playing?  I have a strong, intuitive sense that life is a story, and I am like a character in the story—but unlike characters in a typical story, I am aware that I’m in a story and can wonder about the meaning.  I can’t recall when or how I came to this settled way of encountering time, but it is there as real as the grass on the lawn:  I am in a story.

The anniversary of my launch into this story cannot but feel like a chapter heading, or at least like an occasion some author might seize upon as a chapter heading.  The meaning inherent in all times and places comes close to the surface, as though I can hear the music but can’t make out the words.  My 40th birthday in particular felt like a solemn occasion—a turning point in the story? the intermission? a summons to consider the whole? But the music plays only for me: it’s like having my earbuds in.  As I walked around town only I could hear the music, because my 40th birthday was significant for me and not for people in general.

A sacred day in the Church’s calendar feels more solemn and set apart than my birthday, for three reasons.

First, the objective facts concern everyone. For example, Easter concerns the resurrection of our Lord, which is of the greatest importance imaginable to every human being.  My birthday affects me and a few others; the resurrection of Christ has changed the material situation of the cosmos.

Second, the decision to commemorate this day was made for us by the Church, which speaks in the name of God, and in fact this day has been commemorated since apostolic times. I can decide to celebrate my birthday or not to notice it at all, but the decision to celebrate Easter comes to me from the outside.

Third, the one telling me to commemorate this day is in fact the creator of this day and of the day when Jesus rose long ago.  The author of the story of life has himself told me:  Connect this scene with that one.  It’s not just that it feels like a day that an author might seize upon as significant; it’s not just that the day feels weighty with a meaning we cannot quite make out.  No, the one from whom time itself derives has told us that this day is significant and has told us exactly what it means.  The veil that usually hangs over the meaning of life’s story drops for a few hours.  The music is loud and clear, the words articulate and piercing.

The result is a felt public solemnity.  When I am out for a walk on Easter Sunday and I see people going on with life as though this day were like every other day, then it is as though the church bells are pealing and the sound envelops everything around us and yet they are strangely oblivious. They have ears as I do, but they cannot hear the music. I understand perfectly well why they do not see the day is special, of course, but that is only to say that I understand the mechanism by which they cannot perceive the airwaves. It is eerie to watch a deaf person walk oblivious to all sound, even when I understand the mechanism of the oblivion.

Such at least is my experience of sacred time. The rational account I have given here is a rational account, not an experience, but it is a rational account of an experience. The account comes after and is driven by the experience.

On this Solemnity of All Saints, it is not my private story that comes near the surface, nor is it quite the great Story of the One who broke into this world and reillumined all the symbols.  It is a host of stories, big and small, known and unknown, shouts and whispers—but today I see that they are not many stories.  They are many threads in one grand narrative, making up not this saint and that saint and the other saint but the Communion of Saints.  Even my private story is caught up into their grand narrative, as I venerate them and they pray for me.  The music on my birthday is a lone oboe, but the music today is a symphony of violins, trumpets, penny whistles, drums, clapping hands, and kazoos.  It snatches at me, invites me in, washes even around the oblivious, joyful, uplifted, infectious.

Can you hear it?

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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