Sanctifying Time

Recovering the Church’s tradition of regular and recurring religious practices throughout the day and in the course of the week, month, and year is not just folklore. It responds to a basic human need.

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In a recent essay, I argued that Americans—both secular and, increasingly, Catholic ones—experience a “flattened” sense of time. Time just simply “passes by” with little to distinguish it, with our increasingly attenuated civil holidays (including those shorn of their religious and/or historical content) trying to contend against a brutally “immanentized” approach to time. To remedy this, I argued for the recovery of a religious sense to time—the liturgical year—that forces not just memory but actual celebration that makes present the transcendent into that otherwise “flattened” time.  

Reflecting further on that question, let me suggest that restoring a sense that time is more than just a “succession of days” extending outward indefinitely and meaninglessly (or at best, superficially meaningfully) requires a transcendent sense to the day and to days. I’d argue that, over the past half century, we have lost those markers that make the day more than just the passage of hours and the week more than just a passage of days. Let me explain.

What, in today’s “day,” actually systematically and with regularity recalls the transcendent? Once upon a time, Catholics prayed the Angelus—at 6 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m. As a kid, growing up in New Jersey, I heard the church bells in town ring at those hours. They broke into the routine of the day to remind people of God, even if they didn’t always join in those prayers. (The bells also used to ring before weekday morning Masses).  

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Those time stamps are not limited just to traditional devotions of long-standing. The Divine Mercy devotion asks Catholics to honor the “Hour of Divine Mercy,” remembering that the God-Man died for us at 3 p.m. Even if “only for a brief moment, immerse yourself in my Passion, particularly in My abandonment at the moment of agony” (Diary of St. Faustina Kowalska, 1320). What better way to break up the long afternoon? 

Polish Catholics had the tradition of honoring Our Lady of Częstochowa at 9 p.m. with a brief song, “Mary, Queen of Poland! (3x and her response): I am with you, I remember, I watch over you.”  

All of these devotions are brief—does it take a minute to pray the Angelus?—but all of them interrupt the voracious grind of the day by reminding us there is something beyond the here and now. I’ve written previously that church bells are aural sacramentals because their sound takes us, if but for a few seconds, beyond the immediate to remind us of God and His Church.  

Why have we lost these things? And just how hard would it be to restore them?

Similarly with the week. There were actual Catholic rhythms that made the passage of the week more than just a “succession of days.” Obviously, at its zenith was Sunday. Sunday had a different “feel,” a different rhythm, a different texture. Does it today?

Compare, for example, the typical Sunday with Easter Sunday. Easter, although increasingly invisible in American culture, still feels somewhat different. At least some of the commercial activity of the average Sunday is shuttered. Even the “C&E” (Christmas and Easter) Christians stumble together as a family toward a church. And that initial morning glue might stick long enough for them to do something else as a family.

This “Sunday difference” was especially apparent in July 2021, when the Fourth of July fell on a Sunday. I wrote about the palpable difference in how that date stood out from the average Sunday. It was likewise apparent in 2022, when Christmas fell on a Sunday.

Has our settling for a “weekend” undermined the rhythm of the week?

Similarly, when Catholics abstained on Fridays throughout the year, it gave the sixth day of the week a distinct texture. It wasn’t just sociological: those Catholic fish-eaters do something weird on Fridays. It was, more importantly, spiritual: it regularly reminded Catholics of the significance of a particular Friday in salvation history and, therefore, reconnected them regularly with the Paschal Mystery.

I was struck by this loss of a sense of the rhythm to the week while saying the Rosary this morning. I try to say a decade in the subway on the way to work. What mysteries today? Thursday—Luminous. It’s Thursday already? It seems it was just Thursday. The week’s so far gone? It went by quickly.   

Praying the Rosary using the mysteries appropriate for a particular day of the week not only reminds us of the life of Christ but also systematically makes them part of the flow of time in my life. The decline of this devotion has not just been an impoverishment of our religious awareness of the mysteries of our salvation. It is also a decline of their regular insertion into the lives we lead here and now.

Morning and evening prayer should at least provide hinges to the day though; without hinges to the time of the (liturgical) seasons and with its being “fit into” the “rest of life” means that these daily exercises are somewhat anemic in terms of rescuing us from the devouring maw of the present. That is not to downplay them—as Our Lady reminded the children at La Salette: at least pray an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary,” do more when you can. How often does that become an excuse for “can’t?” [The Liturgy of the Hours, anchored in the liturgical year, tries to “connect” daily prayer to that larger, transcendent perspective].

Recovering the Church’s very healthy tradition of regular and recurring religious practices throughout the day and in the course of the week, month (once upon a time, we spoke about particular months dedicated to spiritual purposes, e.g., May and October to Our Lady, November to Holy Souls, etc.), and year is not just folklore. It responds to a basic human need to escape what French philosopher Jacques Maritain called the “minotaur of the Immanent,” the all-consuming Present that so immerses us in the superficial Now at the cost of making us ask: “Is that all there is?” Is my life either a rat race or a pushing of time across a succession of days, to what end?  

Like the good steward, should we not go and rummage for some of the stuff in the storeroom (Matthew 13:52)? It would even serve our own mental good.  

Author

  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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