Our experience of time is often as an unfolding of a series of events – living our present in the crevices of a mind-projected future. We also additionally experience time as memory – a series of events in the past that play like a grainy, old cinema reel – a few blips, but flowing in succession, and leading to the present moment.
Time is linear in our imaginations. It is a discrete sequence of events with little rhyme or reason. Time is also flat. Time is commonly conceived as two-dimensional – deprived of any depth/height. Each moment, each day and month, is essentially just as another. There are no peaks or troughs on our landscape of time. No depressions or elevations.
Religion challenges this experience of time by introducing the notion of a ‘sacred calendar’. The idea of ‘sacred time’ adds a vertical dimension to our horizontal landscape. Time is no longer a linear or a homologous mass. The Anglican theologian Rowan Williams writes eloquently of this notion of sacred time in his recent book ‘Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons’ :
“Time is not undifferentiated; its passing is marked in ways that are thought to be significant. So the passage of time becomes not just a trajectory of acquisition (acquiring property, acquiring power, acquiring security); it comes to be about the repeated accumulation, as you might say, of meaning, returning to symbolic resources to rediscover aspects of the universe you inhabit, aspects of yourself; to reconnect specific ongoing experience with steady, regular or rhythmical patterns, laid out in the language and practice of a religious community. You keep going back to the practices, the stories, in celebration and commemoration. Time, therefore, becomes neither simply cyclical nor simply linear. It moves, you change; at the same time there is something to which you return , to rediscover and enlarge the understanding acquired in the passage of time. And all of that adds up to dissolving any idea that time is a limited commodity (or indeed any kind of commodity) that has to be squeezed as hard as possible in order to keep the trajectory of acquisition going. Time is a complex and rich gift; it is the medium in which we not only grow and move forward but also constructively return and resource – literally re-source – ourselves”
In a lecture delivered at the University of Oxford, Rowan Williams diagnoses our secular striving towards a perfect static situation where we have nothing to lose, to fear or to gain – as an impatience with the passage of time itself. We are raised on an individualism that resents any unfinishedness, the limitations of time and the human body.
We like to think of ourselves as sovereign minds, that have always been around and that we cannot fathom ceasing to exist. We have long prided ourselves in our rationality – and in that we have come to push to the periphery the fact of our embodied existence. An existence which is much messier than our sanitized mental projections of it. Being embodied and enfleshed in time and space, we are prey to all the limitations that such an existence sets upon us. Our mental mastery itself becomes predicated upon the contingency of taking time and the difficulty of inhabiting our environment.
A sense of these limitations and difficulties may be indispensable to what it means to be a human being. These oblige us to take time. And, as Rowan Williams writes: “The more time we take, the more our discovery is likely to turn into habit and into inhabiting… that the more easily you thought you’d got to know something, the less you’d care about it. Difficulty imposes discipline: it imposes the willingness to believe that there is more to work on… – making us that little bit more patient with the criticism, the challenge, the alternative view, of another world, another culture, another person”
These difficulties of embodied labour are even more difficult to acknowledge in the modern age – due to what is the predominant philosophical treatment of the mind as a virtually disembodied entity. These prejudices also affect our religiosity and spirituality – denuding both of their bodily garb. We are called to practice a ‘prayer of the mind’ over embodied prayer (A dichotomy itself characteristic of the modern view).
As the social theorist Charles Taylor notes: “We have moved from an era in which religious life was more “embodied”, where the presence of the sacred could be enacted in ritual, or seen, felt, touched, walked towards (in pilgrimage); into one which is more “in the mind …”
From Emerson to Rumi, transcendentalists to mystics, the form of the ritual has always been vital – if not central. The wisdom of the body wasn’t lost on the masters of the spirit. As Rumi sings:
“If love for God were only thought and meaning,
the form of fasting and prayer would not exist.
The gifts that lovers exchange are naught
in relation to love except forms,
So that the gifts may give witness
to the love hidden within.”
These reminders may hopefully help initiate us into the Muslim month of Ramadan. With its austere bodily discipline and sharp spiritual demands, it may seem at times too much to the unprepared initiate. Hopefully these reflections serve to make our striving slightly more bearable. A month long practice of such spiritual and material poverty (as Faqir) may be embraced with inspiration from the Mevlana:
“What hidden sweetness is found in this empty stomach!
Man is like a lute, neither more, nor less:
When the lute’s stomach is full,
it cannot lament, whether high or low.
If your brain and stomach burn from fasting,
their fire will draw constant lamentation from your breast.
Through that fire you will burn a thousand veils at every instant –
you will ascend a thousand degrees on the Way and in your aspiration.
Keep your stomach empty! Lament like a flute and tell your need to God!
Keep your stomach empty and speak of the mysteries like a reed!”
Williams, Rowan. ‘Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons’ (SPCK Publishing, 2018)
Chittick, William. ‘The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi’ (SUNY Press, 1983)