Welcoming the New Year: Living the present as kairos or chronos?

Time is a funny thing about which we always seem to be complaining. It wears different faces. For long periods it stretches out like a cat or passes by with indifferent precision, one thing following another. In Greek there are two words for time: chronos and kairos. Both are Greek words which mean time, but they imply different things. Chronos refers to minutes and seconds, time as a measurable resource. Kairos is the word used for time in Ephesians 5:16, an appointed time, an opportune moment, or a due season.

We tend to think of our time in a chronos mindset. We think of having 24 hours in a day. We define our workweeks by the number of hours that we work. We have a list of things to do and only so much time to get everything done. This requires us to make a mental shift. Instead of looking at our time as grains of sand slipping through an hourglass, we can view our time as hundreds of possibilities given by God to enjoy the great gift which we call life. Yet occasionally there arises those times for which Scripture reserves a special word, kairos. This is time which is impregnated by God’s grace. In kairos we are completely unselfconscious, and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we’re constantly checking our watches for chronological time. The saint in contemplation, lost to self in the mind of God is in kairos. The artist at work is in kairos. The child at play, totally thrown outside herself in the game, be it building a sand castle or making a daisy chain, is in kairos. In kairos we become what we are called to be as human beings, co-creators with God, touching on the wonder of creation.

Death too wears different faces. There is the abstract and impersonal face that we see in the earthquake victims in faraway countries, remote acquaintances, or even celebrities whose obituaries we read in the paper. Then there is the face that death presents when it touches us personally, when it draws close to home or steals those to whom we are vitally connected. On this last day of the year, many of us are looking back over it and recalling how this time last year certain special people were still with us who are now in the heavenly Kingdom and continue to intercede for us from there. We see how our lives have changed over the year and to an extent on this last day of the year, we must allow ourselves a space to grieve for the past: for mistakes made, for friendships which have changed or have been lost or damaged, for opportunities missed, for relationships which ended and require that we move on. As Christians though we believe in new life, new possibilities for God’s grace to penetrate the darkness of every situation and show us that He hold our lives in his hands.

The philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote:
“We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and we try to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight...the fact is that the present usually hurts...Let each of us examine his thoughts, he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end.” 

Like St. Augustine before him, Pascal saw human beings as torn between a desire for happiness and an innate confusion about where to find it. There has to be a strong relation between happiness and being fully alive in the present moment. To return to the present is to be in contact with life. Life can be found only in the present moment, because the past no longer is, and the future has not yet come. Unlike the past and the future, nonetheless, the now really exists. Indeed, now is the only time that does exist. In the strictest sense, "there's no time like now." Kairos, because it is present, is an icon of eternal life. To experience the now, after all, one must be alive. It was St. Irenaeus of Lyons who said that: “man is the glory of God fully alive”. So as we begin this New Year 2013, maybe this is a gift we can give to the Lord: to be fully alive for Him. If something is stopping us, this is where we need to make our resolutions and change what needs to be changed in our lives!