Sacred Time in a World Religion Perspective

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Sacred Time And The Search For Meaning (2003) is the title of a recent book by Gary Eberle, a professor of English in a Catholic college in Michigan. I came across the work in the philosophy section of a large bookshop, though it should more properly have been shelved in the mind and spirit section.

Sacred Time is worth examining here because it offers a world religion perspective on the sacred and raises various issues of particular interest for this site. In line with the general approach here, what follows is not a book review, but a two part study: here, a reasonably comprehensive and hopefully objective account of the book's content; then, starting in Human Time Today, a totally separate and maybe ongoing commentary from the developing perspective of this site.

In a nutshell, sacred time for Eberle is the interface between time and eternity that we have lost, but can find again. Eberle's discussion runs over 8 chapters. We shall look at each in turn, homing in on the points of particular interest as we go. [1]

Contemporary imbalance

In his first chapter, Eberle gives us a preliminary tour of his subject matter, starting from his reader's known, the contemporary American's experience of time, and pointing in the direction of an unknown, the alternative experience he is going to argue is possible. Thus, the chapter opens with the image of the typical American family being awakened in the morning by a clock radio, rather than by the sun, and closes with the idea that we can put ourselves in touch with eternity.

The main theme developed in this initial chapter is that there is an imbalance in present-day life: where there should be a balance in our lives between the experience of time and the experience of eternity, we are completely preoccupied with the superficialities of the former and have lost sight of the depths of the latter.

Technology the cause of our neurosis

Eberle presents this problem as arising from technology. Over recent centuries, as the technology of timekeeping has become increasingly sophisticated, clock time has come to dominate our lives more and more. The result of the tyranny of time over our lives is what the psychiatrist, Karen Horney, was, already in the 1930s, calling the neurotic personality of our time. [p 15]

Of course, Eberle believes that all is not lost. There are religious environments where sacred time is still accessible, such as, in his own experience, Palm Sunday mass at a basilica in Rome. This being a world religion perspective, rather than a Catholic one, the author also points to Zen monasticism and the white clapboard Protestant churches of the American Midwest.

Life out of sync

In his second chapter, Eberle explores how people are, as he puts it, out of sync. On the one hand, we are out of sync with the natural world around us, in that our lives are no longer governed by the rhythm of the seasons. On the other hand, we are out of sync with the natural world within us, in that we have become cut off from what the author calls personal or soul time. The idea seems to be that our lives have been taken over so totally by invasive and pervasive communications technologies - television, e-mail, cell phones and whatever - that we are no longer able to engage in any kind of meaningful inner life. Time occupies our full attention, so blotting out eternity.

Time and eternity

The third chapter is actually entitled Time and Eternity. It is about connecting these two. Eberle starts by surveying the ideas of the Ancient Greeks. He finds that while the Greek philosophers got a long way with understanding the two things separately, they got nowhere with how the two might be interconnected: in fact, according to Eberle, the matter remains unresolved in philosophy to this day. However, Greek mythology, and indeed other mythologies, do promise us the possibility of passing from time into eternity.

Sacred time as threshold

The way this possibility can be realised, the author proposes, is through the world's religions. The author links sacred time, which he now presents as a threshold between time and eternity, with the rhythms of human life. These rhythms range from the purely physiological, such as heartbeat and breathing, through to the cultural, as seen in the routines of life in different parts of the world. Eberle suggests that the world's traditional religious practices of ritual, prayer and meditation have evolved as ways of maintaining harmony between time and eternity, of keeping the lives of individuals and of communities in sync.

Absolute unitary being

The author offers a scientific basis for this suggestion, pointing to the researches of D'Aquila and Laughlin into the effects of spiritual practices on human physiology and psychology. These two scientists have distinguished four levels of heightened consciousness, peaking in a state they call absolute unitary being.

In the context of this site generally, it is worth detailing what, second hand from Eberle's account, these 4 levels are:

  1. Aesthetic rapture: when the individual gets caught up in the appreciation of some natural wonder or of some artistic creation,
  2. Religious awe: when there is added a profound and pervasive sense that the world has meaning and unity, oneself included,
  3. Cosmic conciousness: seems to be a higher level of religious awe, in which the whole cosmos is involved in one's feeling,
  4. Absolute unitary being: the ultimate ecstatic state described by mystics, in which they lose all sense of distinction between themselves and God or whatever.

Neural pathways

Eberle reports that, according to Laughlin, religious symbols and practices can have the effect of reorganising neural pathways such that they become more unified. This gives rise to corresponding feelings: subjects experience a greater sense of wholeness within themselves, a greater sense of unity with the people and the world around them; they are less anxious.

The unconcious

The author sees ritual etc as possibly affecting people at a psychological as well as at a physiological level. Thus, he suggests that rites of passage, such as Christian baptism, access the unconscious and have an impact there. He mentions Jung and claims that rituals incorporate tribal wisdom, but it is unclear whether or not he has in mind any notion of the Jungian collective unconscious.

The author ends this third chapter with a key question: how come, if traditional societies had such successful techniques for accessing sacred time, it all got thrown away. In the next two chapters, he offers a historical explanation.

The medieval balance

Eberle starts by evoking the medieval situation, when the balance between time and eternity still held. He does this in terms of two medieval phenomena: on the one hand, the Rule of St Benedict, revealing the balance as it existed for monks; on the other hand, the books of hours, particularly the most famous, the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, revealing the balance as it existed for lay people.

As far as the monks are concerned, the suggestion seems to be that the monastic rule, which imposed a detailed timetable on their lives, actually facilitated for them the profound experience of the eternal by keeping the superficial demands of the temporal under control. The main point about the books of hours seems to be that they demonstrate the importance of joie de vivre, of exuberance and celebration of life in medieval times: how people at all levels of society had the leisure to enjoy an authentic inner life.

The rise of the clock

The author then goes on to chart in some detail the whole history of mechanical timekeeping: how clocks started out merely as devices to help monks maintain the daily routine their rule prescribed for them, but ended up taking over our lives, thereby ending the earlier balance.

Along with the technological changes in timekeeping came a profound change in our attitude to time. Eberle points out that once people started living their lives according to the clock, they stopped thinking about time in terms of natural, organic processes and started understanding it as a uniform and unending flow.

Note that the author implicates the Reformation in the loss of balance. He points out that the Protestant ethic threw the emphasis on time by being hostile to leisure and making time a resource it was sinful to squander.

The author also emphasises the importance of the clock in the development of modern scientific thinking. From Kepler onwards, the clockwork universe was a vital metaphor.

The eternal and God

At the end of his fifth chapter, Eberle returns to the matter of sacred time. In so doing, he associates the eternal with God. Firstly, he suggests that sacred time may be found in a continuum between time and

the deepest raptures of mystical union with the godhead. [p 127]

Secondly, he introduces the phrasein the fullness of time, explained not only as

a miraculous moment in which the eternal and the temporal meet [p 127],

but also as

the experience of what we call the eternal or the divine. [p 128]

According to Eberle, these conjunctions can be experienced through

the sacred traditions of the world. [p 128]

This is going to be explained next, in the sixth chapter.

Ritual as threshold

Here, the author argues that, while rationalist scholars like Durkheim had emphasised the absolute separateness of the sacred and the profane from each other, Eliade and Victor Turner had shown that religious rituals provide us with a liminal state, a threshold that gives us access to both simultaneously and

allows us to see the correct relationship between time and eternity. [p 135]

So in order to restore the balance between time and eternity, we have to break out of our total subjection to time by cutting back on work and to devote some of the leisure thus acquired to religious observances. To demonstrate how this can be achieved, Eberle goes into autobiographical mode in his seventh chapter, recounting how he has taken a sabbatical year off from his college work and put theory into practice.

Autobiography

In this new chapter, the author reveals that he was brought up in a traditionally devout Catholic family, then spent some time training to be a priest, but dropped out. (He spent 2 years in the late 1960s as a Jesuit novice, so he must have been born around 1950.) After that, he drifted away from Catholicism, though he did teach in a Catholic college, and instead practiced Zen meditation.

Both of these religious strands from his earlier life, Eberle took up again in his sabbatical year. He structured the year on the Catholic liturgical calendar, but also got back to Zen.

A liturgical year

The Catholic liturgical year is divided in two cycles, focussing on Christmas and Easter. The author observed it by going to mass on Sundays and so on and internalising its deeper meanings. For example, by committing himself to a very modest amount of fasting during Lent, he was led to reflect not merely on the importance of food in our lives, but, more significantly, on the principle of the instant gratification of all appetites, by which our society lives.

Again, as his liturgical year drew to a close, Eberle observed All Saints Day. This prompted him to pose the question

who today would be willing to die for their beliefs. [p 183]

Within the Catholic liturgical framework, Eberle practiced Zen meditation on a regular basis. This enabled him to escape from the pressure of the future that weighs so heavily on people today and to experience living exclusively in the present.

The Sabbath as celebration

To these strands from his religious past, Eberle added a new one: a Jewish inspired approach to the Sabbath that enabled him to transform the quality of his Sundays. As well as attending mass, he aimed to make the whole day sacred: not in a killjoy fashion by simply not doing this or that, but positively as a celebration, an affirmation of what is good in life.

World religion

The author ends this autobiographical chapter by affirming world religion. Thus, he says that in a multi-cultural society, all traditions should be observed, with every day in school a holy day from one religion or another.

Regarding the Sabbath in particular, he suggests that in order for sacred time to be experienced, existing religious forms may need to be revitalised or new ones invented. He rejects the idea that there can be only one right way of celebrating the Sabbath:

in truth, there are infinite ways, for the experience of sacred time is the experience of being itself and cannot be limited by historic forms. [p 187]

He supports this assertion with references to two twentieth century Catholic philosophers he has previously referred to repeatedly, Pieper and Guitton.

Eschatology

In the final chapter of his book, called an Afterword, Eberle aims to place his idea of sacred time in an eschatological context, arguing that a religious worldview needs to place the life of the individual in an overall framework. This means coming up with a perspective that integrates scientific knowledge and the world's religious traditions.

The author offers a useful introduction to eschatology by summarising the pre-Christian, Christian and neo-Christian contributions of, respectively, Zarathrustra, St Augustine of Hippo, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Zarathrustra's religion, Zoroastrianism, seems to have been the first with a view of the end of time, including the notion of people being judged for all eternity on the basis of the moral choices they make in their lifetime. For Eberle, this kind of view integrates time with eternity, making our personal experience of time meaningful as a journey towards eternity.

The fourth century St Augustine (Eberle calls him just Augustine) systematised early Christian eschatology, which had been influenced by the earlier Zoroastrianism. His City of God interpreted universal history as a process directed by God towards an eternal goal that would be realised in the Second Coming of Christ.

Eberle remarks that this idea of universal history being directed towards a goal paved the way for modern ideas of progress and evolution.

This is where the French Jesuit priest and palaeontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, comes in. In The Phenomenon of Man (1955) and other works, he offered an interpretation of universal history which integrated evolutionary theory with Christian eschatology. Teilhard presented evolution as a process by which the natural world is becoming ever more conscious, a process that will end in convergence with the ultimate consciousness of Christ.

A world religion eschatology

Eberle concludes with his own world religion eschatology. it is a version of Teilhard, in which Christ is replaced as the eternal goal of history by love. The author finds the message that love is the end of time to be the underlying message in the wisdom books of the world's great religious traditions. [p 205] That is the belief which must inform our quest for sacred time.

NOTES

1 Interface

May 2007: Compare Wilfred Cantwell Smith:

To be human is to live in the complicated intersection between the eternal, as it is sometimes called, and time-and-place: between the infinite, more or less dimly perceived, and the moving stream of the mundane [1983], (quoted in Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies [2000]).

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(c) John C Durham, 2003