The Indivisibility of Time and the Meaning of Tradition

COMMENTARY: We live in a world where time is indivisible. Our lives become more meaningful and tradition becomes possible only when we acknowledge that fact.

The deeper insight into life indicates that the moment in the present cannot convey the true meaning of time.
The deeper insight into life indicates that the moment in the present cannot convey the true meaning of time. (photo: Sommart / Shutterstock)

We live from moment to moment. We measure time in millennia, decades, years, months, weeks, days, minutes and seconds. This is practical since it allows us to determine our age, celebrate anniversaries, be on time for meetings, organize air flights and take care of sundry other matters of importance. 

And yet, time never stops at any point. It is an unbroken flow that cannot, in itself, be divided into parts. We know this intuitively, although we never lose sight of the practical significance of chronometers.

There is no instant that stands outside of the flow of time. Yet, there is a radical need to distinguish between the past, the present and the future. God does not distinguish between these three modes of time. He is above time and therefore can see everything in one glance. 

When Mary stated in her Magnificat (Luke 46-55) that “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed,” the future was instantly present to her as was the “lowliness” of her past.

Mozart conceived his music all at once rather than in a sequence. Musicologists refer to this phenomenon in the German language as einfallen, which means “falling into place as one.” T.S. Eliot’s expression, “in my beginning is my end” also suggests how the future can be contained in the present. 

The deeper insight into life indicates that the moment in the present cannot convey the true meaning of time. We tend to glorify the moment and have difficulty waiting for something better to come by. We are advised, however, that in patience we will possess our souls (Luke 21:19-21). 

Swiss psychiatrist Max Picard has noted that a danger arises, especially with regard to human sexuality, “that only the moment counts.” Thus, what occurs or does not occur in the moment is overestimated. 

When the moment is extracted from the flow of time one will fail to see the larger picture. As Picard goes on to say, “it dynamites the unity of a life, its history, so that a man totally given to it would be historyless [sic].” People become unduly angry when the moment fails to satisfy them. The ability to wait — the virtue of patience — allows one to appreciate both the fullness of his life and the fullness of God’s plan. Christ can speak of marriage as indissoluble because he can see it in its wholeness. Sex, isolated from the stream of time, can be a great danger to marriage and an important contributor to divorce.

On a broader level, a culture can also attach too much importance to the moment, including the people who live in that moment. Thus, the temptation to underestimate or even to reject the contributions of the past. 

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) provides an important insight when he states:

“The past can be discovered as something to be preserved only if the future is regarded as a duty; discovery of the future and discovery of the past are inseparably connected, and it is this discovery of the indivisibility of time that actually makes tradition.”

Frederic Chopin is a highly original composer. Yet, he hardly stands alone in time. He is indebted to Bach and Mozart and his piano music has influenced virtually every composer for that instrument who came after him. He had a clear sense of the important things that emerged from the past. At the same time, struggling against tuberculosis, he saw with equal clarity the importance of his music in the future. Therefore, he was part of a tradition. For Chopin, like all the great composers, time is indivisible. The past, present, and future are one.

Too much emphasis on the present, severed from both the past and the future, is a formidable enemy of tradition. And tradition, we must remember, in the best sense of the word, forms the human being and is an inestimable asset in understanding what it means to be human. 

As Robert Louis Stevenson has stated, “Every heart that has beat strongly and cheerfully has left a hopeful impulse behind it in the world, and bettered the tradition of mankind.” G.K. Chesterton would heartily agree. In his Orthodoxy he declared:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

That “small arrogant oligarchy” to which Chesterton refers is too much fixated on the present and remains oblivious to the contributions of the past and the debt we owe to posterity. A tradition that sheds light on what it means to be a human being can evolve only if the wholeness of time has been discovered. 

Tradition, properly understood, arises from the transcendence of today in the directions of both the past and the future. Sir Isaac Newton pays homage to both the past and the future when he admits that “if I have seen further [than others], it is by standing on the shoulders of others.” Here is a fine integration of the past and future as seen through the present. Newtonian physics continues to be a respected and useful instrument for better understanding the universe in which we live. It forms a tradition we would be impoverished to do without.

We live in a world where time is indivisible. Our lives become more meaningful and tradition becomes possible only when we acknowledge that fact.


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