Time: For the Lord to Act

For the time is near (Revelation 22:10)

This is the conclusion of a two-part reflection on 2 books by Carlo Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics  and The Order of Time.  The previous post is  Rab – ½ R gab = Tab.

Rovelli deconstructs time as he talks about it in terms of relativity and quantum mechanics.  The song (quoted at the beginning of the previous post), “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It is?”, takes on totally new meaning in the world of quantum physics.  The answer is clearly “NO, we have no idea what time is let alone what time it is!”  Just as our observation deceives us when we think the earth is not moving or when we believe the sun is rising or setting, so too our normal experience of time is completely relative.  Time it turns out is related to mass, speed and gravity which is totally counter intuitive to what we think we experience.   As an old, slow moving fat man living in the lowlands, I experience time differently than the average child running in circles at the top of the Rocky Mountains – and its not just because I’m older and slower.

Ten years before understanding that time is slowed down by mass, Einstein had realized that it was slowed down by speed. The consequence of this discovery for our basic intuitive perception of time is the most devastating of all. The fact itself is quite simple. Instead of sending the two friends from the first chapter to the mountains and the plains, respectively, let’s ask one of them to stay still and the other one to walk around. Time passes more slowly for the one who keeps moving.   (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 353-358)

Those of us who have paid attention in recent years to liturgical talk know that in the Church there are different kinds of time – chronos and Kairos.  There also is the sense of eternity – that which exists completely outside of time, not bounded by beginning and end.  And in Christianity, we have the incarnation and ascension in which the timeless God enters into time itself blurring all distinctions between past, present and future and creating a unity in which eternity becomes temporal and  the temporal world comes to exist outside of time!

There is, nevertheless, an aspect of time that has survived the demolition inflicted on it by nineteenth- and twentieth-century physics. Divested of the trappings with which Newtonian theory had draped it, and to which we had become so accustomed, it now shines out with greater clarity: the world is nothing but change. None of the pieces that time has lost (singularity, direction, independence, the present, continuity) puts into question the fact that the world is a network of events. On the one hand, there was time, with its many determinations; on the other, the simple fact that nothing is: things happen.  (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 806-811)

The theory of relativity and quantum physics have shown that Newtonian physics [which to a large extent accurately describes the world we experience and was capable of getting humans to the moon] does not fully reflect the nature of reality.  Nature turns out to be far more mysterious than previously imagined.  Additionally, so much in quantum physics turns out to be shaped by the observer of the events – as if reality does not exist until and unless it is observed.   This aspect of physics should be far more intriguing to faithful theists than it often is, for it might suggest that the universe, 16 billion years old, was unfolding only because there was an observer all along – namely God.  The will of God might be considered to be that what God observes – not predestining every little thing, but allowing things to unfold in unexpected ways.  And in fact it could not unfold at all if there had not been One observing it.

…we must accept the idea that reality is only interaction…   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 207-207)

Heisenberg imagined that electrons do not always exist. They only exist when someone or something watches them, or better, when they are interacting with something else. They materialize in a place, with a calculable probability, when colliding with something else. The “quantum leaps” from one orbit to another are the only means they have of being “real”: an electron is a set of jumps from one interaction to another. When nothing disturbs it, it is not in any precise place. It is not in a “place” at all.   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 177-181)

Things do not simply exist – they only exist in relationship to other things.  Ultimately, they need an observer to exist at all.  Reality is thus relational, and certainly Trinitarian Christians would say that relation is part and parcel to God’s own existence.  God as Trinity does not exist alone but always and eternally as a relational divinity – the Three Persons of the Trinity in constant love with one another and now in relationship to that which they created and called into existence.

Rovelli for all his commitment to pure science can’t in the end resist waxing philosophically.  As he considers the human experience of the universe, he writes:

Lucretius expresses this, wonderfully: . . . we are all born from the same celestial seed; all of us have the same father, from which the earth, the mother who feeds us, receives clear drops of rain, producing from them bright wheat and lush trees, and the human race, and the species of beasts, offering up the foods with which all bodies are nourished, to lead a sweet life and generate offspring . . . (De rerum natura, bk. II, lines 991–97)  (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 677-687)

Even though we humans are conscious beings who influence and shape the changing world, we still are part of the empirical universe that exists.  Our roots are in the same creation which brought all else into existence.  Yet, we humans have a unique role to play in the universe because of our consciousness and our consciences.

Persian poet Saadi Shirazi. Captured and enslaved at Acre by the Crusaders, Shirazi is the author of those luminous verses that now stand at the entrance of the headquarters of the United Nations:

All of the sons of Adam are part of one single body, They are of the same essence. When time afflicts us with pain In one part of that body All the other parts feel it too. If you fail to feel the pain of others You do not deserve the name of man.  (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 218-224)

To be human is to feel pain, not only our own, but also that of our fellow human beings.  To be human is to be part of the created order – we humans are relational beings.  We relate to each other but also to all that exists.  We not only observe the universe and thus affect it on the quantum level through our observations, we also interact with it consciously and help shape the unfolding of the universe and of time, whatever time turns out to be.  We are capable of knowing things and knowing one another, and observing things from another’s point of view.  Our capacity for knowledge leads us to new relationships with the universe of which we are part, which we can observe, and which we can influence and shape.

as Lucretius wrote: “our appetite for life is voracious, our thirst for life insatiable” (De rerum natura, bk. III, line 1084).   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 669-670)

We are not merely the products of a random and indeterminate universe.  Though for science as Rovelli describes it the universe is mostly these random processes working out the relationships of the things which are:

A handful of types of elementary particles, which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and nonexistence and swarm in space, even when it seems that there is nothing there, combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies; of the innumerable stars; of sunlight; of mountains, woods, and fields of grain; of the smiling faces of the young at parties; and of the night sky studded with stars.   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 322-325)

The passage of time is internal to the world, is born in the world itself in the relationship between quantum events that comprise the world and are themselves the source of time.   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 372-374)

As Christians we know that we humans have evolved to the point of being observers of the universe and thus in quantum terms capable of shaping what unfolds.  We have realized that the inanimate universe is not all that exists, for we have come to know there is a God who observes us observing the universe which God created for us to know God.  We not only observe, we are capable of conscious choice which itself changes the universe.  We are not merely evolving according to biology, for we have evolved to the point of being able to shape our destiny.  And we realize we are not the creators of this reality, but participants in a reality which was created by God.  We thus continue to discover ourselves as relational beings – not just to the empirical universe, but to its Creator as well, with whom we are capable of interacting.   We are capable of experiencing the mystery of time, of experiencing things that defy scientific explanation or which exist beyond the confines of the empirical universe.

So what is this  “time” which we experience?   Rovelli says in physics it can be reduced to this:

if nothing else around it changes, heat cannot pass from a cold body to a hot one. The crucial point here is the difference from what happens with falling bodies: a ball may fall, but it can also come back up, by rebounding, for instance. Heat cannot. This is the only basic law of physics that distinguishes the past from the future.  (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 233-236)

For Christians, however, time is kairos: that which God called into existence so that God can act in that which God created which is not God but which God created exactly to share in the divine life and to become God.

 “God became human so that humans might become God.”   (Irenaeus)

Rab – ½ R gab = Tab

As I was walking down the street one day
A man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was on my watch, yeah
And I said

Does anybody really know what time it is
Does anybody really care
If so I can’t imagine why
We’ve all got time enough to cry

(“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” by Chicago)

I occasionally read science texts though I’m not a scientist.  I appreciate the sense of discovering truth through science, and the recognition by science that the truth it proclaims today may be only an approximation of the universe as it really is.  Future discoveries can show that what science at one time believed (even dogmatically!) to be true, can at a later date be shown to be incomplete or completely wrong.  So as I just finished reading a couple of books about the nature of time (Carlo Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics  and The Order of Time), I realize how little I know about the world I live in.

as Hans Reichenbach suggests in one of the most lucid books on the nature of time, The Direction of Time, that it was in order to escape from the anxiety time causes us that Parmenides wanted to deny its existence, that Plato imagined a world of ideas that exist outside of it, and that Hegel speaks of the moment in which the Spirit transcends temporality and knows itself in its plenitude. It is in order to escape this anxiety that we have imagined the existence of “eternity,” a strange world outside of time that we would like to be inhabited by gods, by a God, or by immortal souls.* Our deeply emotional attitude toward time has contributed more to the construction of cathedrals of philosophy than has logic or reason. The opposite emotional attitude, the veneration of time—Heraclitus or Bergson—has given rise to just as many philosophies, without getting us any nearer to understanding what time is. Physics helps us to penetrate layers of the mystery. It shows how the temporal structure of the world is different from our perception of it. It gives us the hope of being able to study the nature of time free from the fog caused by our emotions. But in our search for time, advancing increasingly away from ourselves, we have ended up by discovering something about ourselves, perhaps—just as Copernicus, by studying the movements of the heavens, ended up understanding how the Earth moved beneath his feet. Perhaps, ultimately, the emotional dimension of time is not the film of mist that prevents us from apprehending the nature of time objectively.   (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 1746-1758)

Science moved us from a faith-based way of thinking to one which was based in evidence.  Science replaced the older idea of philosophy that truth could be found purely through reason.  Science showed that reason can be faulty because it might not have all the facts – there are many things hidden from our observational point of view – or the facts actually fit together in a way previously not imagined.  But science has also discovered that observation alone can also be misleading as it too might not have the complete picture of what is going on.  By observation people concluded that the earth was flat, the earth was not moving, or that the sun orbited the earth, or that the sun was the center of the universe (Copernicus proposed a heliocentric universe as versus an earth centered one, but his model was also not a correct description of the universe).  All these observations turned out to be wrong as we gained new information about our world and the universe.

During the great period of German idealism, Schelling could think that man represented the summit of nature, the highest point where reality becomes conscious of itself. Today, from the point of view provided by our current knowledge of the natural world, this idea raises a smile. If we are special, we are only special in the way that everyone feels themselves to be, like every mother is for her child. Certainly not for the rest of nature. Within the immense ocean of galaxies and stars we are in a remote corner; amid the infinite arabesques of forms that constitute reality, we are merely a flourish among innumerably many such flourishes.  (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 562-567)

Mathematics kept showing our version of reality just didn’t add up.   We still have the signs of these old beliefs in our language – for example, the sun rises and sets whereas now we now it is as the earth turns on its axis that we experience dawn and dusk.

Science thus keeps challenging the truths it proclaims.  Truth in science is not absolute but only as good as the data we collect and what we can observe.  Science recognizes there may be aspects of reality which we cannot know – some might say yet, but quantum physics has shown there are things we cannot know ever.

Aiden Hart recently wrote (FAITH & SCIENCE: YOKEFELLOWS OR ANTAGONISTS?) about the risks of trying to base one’s religious faith on scientific truth:

First, the danger of relating a “scientific truth” with one’s faith is that, while the tenets of faith are unchanging, the scientific theory of today might be replaced by another tomorrow. The scientific community is continually challenging its theories and trying to perfect them. Reality about the universe is not always the same as current scientific explanations about that reality. There is a saying: “The religion that marries the science of today will be a widow tomorrow.”

Hart calls science and religion “neighbors” in terms of truth, and one has to admit that as neighbors they don’t always share the same grounds for establishing truth.  There are property boundaries which neighbors have to respect and realize the limits of their properties.  On the other hand, Hart holds some hope that maybe with the physics of relativity and quantum mechanics that maybe Trinitarian theology will be able to give science some insight into a theory of everything.

Not sure I share his optimism on this, but I appreciated his article and would recommend it to any person of faith who wonders what the relationship of science is to Christianity.  Hart writes as a Christian iconographer.   At the same time that I read Hart’s article, I also finished reading two books by physicist Carlo Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics   and The Order of Time.    Both books are accessible to people not trained in science but who find science fascinating.  Speaking about the Theory of Relativity, Rovelli says:

The world described by the theory is thus further distanced from the one with which we are familiar. There is no longer space that “contains” the world, and there is no longer time “in which” events occur. There are only elementary processes wherein quanta of space and matter continually interact with one another. The illusion of space and time that continues around us is a blurred vision of this swarming of elementary processes…   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 374-377)

Hubble Telescope Photo

We are like an only child who in growing up realizes that the world does not revolve only around himself, as he thought when little. He must learn to be one among others. Mirrored by others, and by other things, we learn who we are.   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 560-562)

Rovelli manages to show that time and space in the new physics are not quite what we commonly think about when we use those words.  Relativity has shown us that even something like time which we commonly experience is relative, and known only in relationships with other things.  Time is not a constant throughout the universe but experienced differently throughout the vast universe relative to where one is and what one is doing.

… an extraordinary idea occurred to him [Einstein], a stroke of pure genius: the gravitational field is not diffused through space; the gravitational field is that space itself. This is the idea of the general theory of relativity. Newton’s “space,” through which things move, and the “gravitational field” are one and the same thing.   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 92-95)

space and gravitational field are the same thing. And of a simple equation that I cannot resist giving here, even though you will almost certainly not be able to decipher it. Perhaps anyone reading this will still be able to appreciate its wonderful simplicity: Rab – ½ R gab = Tab That’s it.   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 131-135)

The truth about the universe summed up in one formula!  Who would have guessed the universe could be so readily described or reduced to a formula?

Next:  Time: For the Lord to Act

What Time Is It?

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Wisdom tells us we need to know what time it is.  Which doesn’t mean we know the time on the clock or our cell phone.  It is knowing the right moment, whenever that might occur.  It is time, as a deacon says at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, for the Lord to act.   St John Climacus writes:

If there is a time for all things under heaven, as the Preacher tells us, and by ‘all things’ we should know it means all things that concern our sacred life, then, if you are willing, let us examine it so that we may attempt to do at each moment what is fitting for that occasion. This is surely the case for those who enter the games, for there is a time for dispassion (I make this remark for the athletes who are doing their apprenticeship). There is a time for weeping. There is a time for hardness of heart. There is a time for obedience. There is a time to give orders. There is a time to fast and a time to eat. There is a time for struggling with our foe, the body, and a time when the fire burns down. There is a time of spiritual tempest, and a time for spiritual peace.

Martin Luther King

 

There is a time for profound grief and a time for spiritual gladness. There is a time for instruction and a time for listening. There is a time for corruptions, perhaps from pride, and a time for purifying through meekness. There is a time for battle and a time for secure rest. There is a time for stillness and a time for distraction. There is a time for ceaseless prayer and a time for devout ministry. Therefore may we not be tricked by haughty zeal and pursue, prematurely, what will happen in its time. That is, we should not during winter seek for that which should come in the summer, or at spring for what is due at the harvest. Because there is a time to sow in toil, and a time to harvest the unmentionable graces. For otherwise we will not obtain even in its time what is fitting for that time.      (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Kindle Location 2383-2394)

Know what time it is!  For when spiritually we do not know the seasons and the time, we are subject to despair and despondency.

Despondency—in all its complexity and cunningness—arises from a relationship to time that has become broken. It amounts to no less than a perpetual attempt by the mind to flee from the present moment, to disregard the gift of God’s presence at each juncture of time and space.  The path to healing—paved and well trodden by steadfast souls who have gone before us—is one and the same as the path back to the present.   (Nicole Roccas , Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, Kindle Location 150-153)

Our Lord Jesus Christ says He is with us always.  If we always are in His presence, then the time is right.  All around us things can be changing, even for the worse, but when we are in Christ we are in the right moment.

For he says, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.  (2 Corinthians 6:2)

Living in the Present

“Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand.” (Romans 13:11-12)

“And the taskmasters forced them to hurry, saying, “Fulfill your work, your daily quota…”  (Exodus 5:13)

“The mistake we often make with our inner life is to imagine that if we hurry we will be in our future sooner – a little like the man who ran from the last carriage of the train to the first, hoping that the distance between London and Edinburgh would be shortened as a result. When it is that kind of example we see how absurd it is, but when we continually try to live an inch ahead of ourselves, we do not feel the absurdity of it. Yet that is what prevents us from being completely in the present moment, which I dare say is the only moment in which we can be, because even if we imagine that we are ahead of time or ahead of ourselves, we are not. The only thing is that we are in a hurry, but we are not moving more quickly for this.”  (Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, p. 50)

Is Yesterday Just Another Tomorrow?

I have a curiosity about certain scientific topics.  But I’m not a scientist, and so I read science mostly at a popular level, things like the magazine, DISCOVER: SCIENCE FOR THE CURIOUS.  These are not peer reviewed scientific articles, so the scientist may only pay scant attention to these articles, even if they are written by scientists for the curious.

One issue which I think is related to both theology and science is the issue of time.   Certainly at one point even scientists imagined time was a fixed value, and Western thinkers imagine time as marching on in a progression from past to present to future (if one pays attention in Orthodox liturgy and to certain writings of the Orthodox, one will note the Eastern Christians do not hold to a strictly linear understanding of time, especially once the eternal God enters into time through the incarnation!).  Albert Einstein changed the thinking on time and how time (or the experience of it) is understood as being relative to one’s position in the universe.  Einstein and many scientists think of time as being an illusion with the future being fully set with no difference between the past and the future.  This thinking is very contrary to what theists understand about the universe which is unfolding as God wills, changed by God’s will and also by human choice.   Avowed atheists hold solidly to a notion that there is no free will, no consciousness and  thus believe everything is simply an effect of past cause unfolding in mindless predetermination.

So it was interesting to read in the June Issue of Discover an article about one cosmologist, George Ellis, who disagrees with Einstein.  And though the ideas of Ellis have not garnered much support in the scientific world, still he is a scientist attempting to offer a scientific alternative to what is considered dogma for most physicists.   The article, titled Tomorrow Never Was, written by Zeeya Merali.

Ellis is troubled by the implications of Einstein’s theory, for if the past and future are no different, but everything is already set, then humans have no free will and there is no reason to hold people accountable for their behavior since all things and all actions are fixed by what came before them.   Ellis’ questions are the questions that any theist has to wrestle with.  Ellis questions Einstein because of these philosophical implications.

 “If we are just machines living out a future that has already been set, then Adolf Hitler had no choice to do other than what he did; Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, had no choice,” Ellis says. It would be meaningless to tell them they were doing something wrong, he adds. “To me, that’s an untenable view of the world that will lead to great evil because people will just stand by as evil takes place.”

Ellis’ questions about Einstein’s theory are philosophical and ethical – looking at the question as to what it means to be human, something many scientists do not think to be mere speculation but not science.  However, his questions are also based in physics, for scientists have known for a long time that general relativity and quantum mechanics are incompatible.  These problems have been demonstrated in laboratory experiments.   Those scientific problems have not led to an abandonment of Einstein’s theory by scientists, but pose a challenge to be solved.  Ellis sees the problem as perhaps a reason to rethink Einstein on the philosophical and moral levels as well as on the scientific level.

Of course having one cosmologist thinking outside the box does not mean that he is correct and the rest of the theory is wrong, any more than finding one theologian who abandons Orthodoxy in favor of a novel idea makes the new idea correct.  But Ellis’ ideas do give theists and the curious a chance to reflect on whether perhaps the universe Einstein describes in his theories is perhaps not exactly correct either.  Of course many mainstream physicists still see ideas of free will or a God as belonging to an archaic way of thinking which is no longer supported by scientific fact, mathematics or scientific theory.

As best as I can make sense of the universe and time, the universe is believed to be expanding.  Some question what the edge of the universe could mean.  Is the universe spreading into something that exists outside the universe?  Many think the universe is simply creating space as it expands – there truly is nothing beyond the universe but the universe is growing in size.  It seems to me the same concept applies to time.  The future does not exist, but time and space do exist and they do expand.   Time is expanding, creating new time, as it does so.  The future is not fixed, but the actions within the existing universe shape the future.   In their expansion, space/time are pushing the outer edges which are simultaneously creating more space and more time.  Space and time work in the same way in their expansion.

Ellis attempts to explain the evolving universe in quantum terms to show how the future is not in fact the same as the past and is not fixed.

He contends that at the front edge of his evolving block universe, the uncertain future crystallizes into the past through a sequence of microscopic quantum events. At each event, particles are forced to transform from their original uncertain quantum state — where they juggle multiple conflicting identities — and settle into one rigid identity. As adjacent particles go through this process, a wave of certainty converts the open future to the closed past.

His scientific peers think Ellis is far from proving his ideas. Ellis contends since observers in fact influence or alter events on the quantum level that shows that time is not fixed as Einstein envisioned it.  His critics object

“that vast swaths of the universe are devoid of people to observe quantum processes, which physicists traditionally say is what triggers particles to transform from their uncertain superpositions into defined states. So who or what is observing these quantum particles and forcing them to change their nature?

Ellis counters that quantum collapse can occur without a conscious observer, whenever particles collide with each other, knocking each other out of their uncertain states. This idea, called decoherence, is already gaining popularity (independently) among physicists.”

Believers of course would offer that the entire universe if always being observed by God and so quantum events can occur without human observers.  The God solution would never be acceptable to scientific materialists.

At least in the article, Ellis does not bring God into the equation but continues to try to show from science why time is real, not just an illusion, and why it matters what we do and who we are.

New Year’s Day: Time after Time

New Year’s Day: an appropriate holiday to think about time.  When I took the dog early this morning for a walk in the woods, I was thinking about time, and some verse came to mind.

If time could tell,
Could it tell what time it is?
Is it time to begin,
Or time to end?
Does it have time to tell?
Does it know when it’s time to go?
Time has come.
What time is it?

Time can be where or place:
Time zones,
Space and time,
Where are we in time?
Time out, over time,
Right time, down time,
Time’s up, on time,
What time is left?
Time is on my side
Time tells distance – 3 hours from here.
We can run out of time.

Time is when:
When its time.
Time period.
Now’s the time,
The time has passed.
Time drags on.
There’s no time like the present.
What time is it, anyway?
This time, next time.
Is the time change
Time for a change?

Whose time is it?
My time,
Wasting time, killing time.
A good time had by all.
Your time, clock time.
Who’s got time?
The time belongs to us.
Some do time.
We can make up lost time.
When will it be our time?
All in God’s time.

Time counts.
Time signature, time exposure.
Best time, time keeping
At one time,
Two at a time,
Triple time,
Record time,
Time consuming.
Time sign multiplies.
What is the sign of the time?
Is time money?

Timely questions for sure,
Timeless too.
Maybe some other time,
We’ll have time to ask:
Does time fly?
Sometime, anytime will do.
The last time I did this or
Is this the last time?
Before time,
Time and time again,
The end of time.

Monday of Holy Week

Orthodox hymns throughout the year give us some insight into how our spiritual forefathers and mothers in the faith interpreted the Scriptures and what lessons they drew from them.   Hymns from the Lenten Triodion do this as well often focusing on particularly Lenten themes.   The Kontakion for Holy Monday focuses on part of the Genesis story dealing with the aged Jacob and his son, Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers  (Genesis 37, 39-46).  [During the weekdays of  Great Lent portions of Genesis are read liturgically, and only a tiny portion of the Jacob and Joseph story is read in the Orthodox Church (small portions of Genesis 43, 45 and 46 are read).]    The Kontakion lyrics read as follows:

Patriarch Jacob's dream

JACOB LAMENTED THE LOSS OF JOSEPH

BUT HIS NOBLE SON WAS SEATED ON A CHARIOT AND HONORED AS A KING!

FOR WHEN HE REFUSED TO BE ENSLAVED BY THE PLEASURES OF THE EGYPTIAN WOMAN,

HE WAS GLORIFIED BY THE LORD WHO BEHOLDS THE HEARTS OF MEN,

AND BESTOWS UPON THEM AN INCORRUPTIBLE CROWN!

The portion I think of most interest for Great Lent comes from Genesis 39 in which Joseph now a slave to an Egyptian courtier is sexually harassed by his master’s wife.  Joseph refuses her sexual advances but then is unjustly punished due to false accusations made against him.  The hymn  upholds the virtue of Joseph in refusing the illicit sexual advances of his master’s wife.  The story is unusual at this point in the Scriptures because there is not a lot of sexual purity mentioned in Genesis.  Joseph is an exceptionally moral man in a very immoral world.

What the hymn uniquely brings out is that Joseph, though a slave, behaves like a free man.  Joseph is not physically enslaved by pleasure or his own passions, nor by the bonds of his Egyptian master or the passions of his master’s wife.  He behaves with the free will and determination of a king.  He is the perfect example of a Christian during Great Lent.  For the Lenten season is one in which we can demonstrate that we too will not be enslaved by anything, including our own appetites.  Fasting is freedom from bondage to the body or the self.  Fasting enables us to say no to any desire and to live as free men and women, doing as we want rather than as our bodies demand us to behave.  Fasting is a great sign of freedom.

Another hymn from Matins (the Canon Ikos) picks up on this same theme of Joseph and freedom:

Patriarch Jacob

TODAY LET US ADD LAMENTATION TO LAMENTATION.  LET OUR TEARS FLOW WITH THOSE OF JACOB WHO WEEPS FOR HIS CELEBRATED AND SOBER-MINDED SON; FOR THOUGH BODILY JOSEPH WAS INDEED A SLAVE, HE PRESERVED THE FREEDOM OF HIS SOUL AND WAS LORD OVER ALL EGYPT.  FOR GOD PREPARES FOR HIS SERVANTS AN INCORRUPTIBLE CROWN.

Once again we see Joseph though a slave preserves the freedom of his soul by practicing abstinence.  Joseph doesn’t allow Potiphar’s wife to determine his own morality or sexual activity.  Joseph rules over his body and his passions. Again, a very Lenten message – fasting isn’t self denial so much as asserting one’s free will to rule over one’s own body!

Joseph is said to be sober-minded which gives all of us who live in a self indulgent culture of excessive eating and drinking something to think about.  The scriptural lesson drawn from the Old Testament story is about sobriety, watchfulness, vigilance and virtue.

Sobriety as a spiritual way of living is important for those of us in a church which doesn’t command prohibition.  We can imbibe alcohol but it is our spiritual combat to exercise self control like Jacob did and to free ourselves from passion, intoxication and addiction.     The need for each of us to exercise freedom from drunkenness and intoxication does not get enough emphasis in many Orthodox cultures and parishes.

 

St. Paul and Old Testament Saints

The above Ikos hymn also reflects another interesting element of Orthodox hymnography – namely it doesn’t follow linear time in its thinking.  Jacob is now weeping for his son whom he assumes is dead, and we are to join him in this lamentation.  The hymn doesn’t place Jacob in the past as a distant historical figure, but very much alive today with us (very reminiscent of Matthew 22:31-32 where Jesus says that God is the God of Jacob who was long dead at the time of Christ, but Jesus says He is God of the living and Jacob is alive in God).   Often in Orthodox hymnography linear time is completely ignored as past, present and future are all enveloped in the timelessness of eternity.  I think Metropolitan Hilarion Alfayev calls this an iconographic element of Orthodox hymnology because icons at times also ignore “history” and bring together in one icon saints and scenes separated by vast distances and long time periods.

As another example of this non-linear time use, we pray in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

“You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom which is to come.

For all these things we thank You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit…”

Thus we offer thanksgiving to God for the kingdom which is to come as if we have already received it!   God granted (past) His Kingdom which is still (future) to come.   We are no longer in the world of linear time, but rather experience in this world the relativity of time as we come to realize time is contained within and by the eternity of God.

Brainy Optimism and Realism about the Future

To the Future

Studies show that humans have a tendency toward optimism as they look to the future.  And it doesn’t take any studies for us to realize people’s memory of the past is often murky.   Tali Sharot in the 6 June 2011 issue of TIME magazine, The Optimism Bias, explores some of these ideas from the basis of human evolution.  Sharot  asks:

Where did these mistakes in memory come from?

Scientists who study memory proposed an intriguing answer: memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events, the researchers claimed. It is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process, and occasionally, details are deleted and others inserted.

So in this thinking, memory lapses may actually be part of an evolutionary survival tool.  We don’t simply record the past, we re– member it, adding and deleting elements in a reconstructive process that also serves to help us survive and want to survive.  We re-create the past to allow us to have hope for the future.

 To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one’s mind.  . . . It is easy to see why cognitive time travel was naturally selected for over the course of evolution. It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward. It also lets us forecast how our current behavior may influence future generations.  . . .  While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. Ajit Varki, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism. Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.

Death is a frightening stumbling block to thinking about the future.  Yet even in Genesis where death is a bad consequence of human choices and behavior, the text does not despair about humanity.  The text is always pushing toward the future, toward a better time and place which becomes part of the woof and weave of the scriptural fabric.  There is exile from a better past, but a hope of a better future.  Death is not an obstacle to what God is doing and what He hopes humans will do.   God continues to work with His people and the people continue to try to figure out what direction God is leading them.  By the time of Christianity, there is total hope in the defeat of death, and the promise of a blessed life with God.  The mistakes and sins of the past will not prevent the better future from materializing.

While humans seem to have developed an unrealistic optimism about the future, some suffer from depression.  Mild depression, which can be debilitating to anyone person, can serve a purpose within the human community: it can help us be more realistic about the future.

While healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it ends up being, people with severe depression tend to be pessimistically biased: they expect things to be worse than they end up being. People with mild depression are relatively accurate when predicting future events. They see the world as it is.

This may explain why some people with mild forms of depression are often viewed as being pessimistic by others (those unduly influenced by an unrealistic optimism!), while these people often see themselves as not being negatively pessimistic, but rather as being realists.  They are clairvoyant in a way that the unrealistic optimist does not like.

A final point that caught my attention in the article:  when subjects in a study were primed with words that would make them think they would do poorly on a test, “the brain…did not show signs of surprise or conflict when it made an error. A brain that doesn’t expect good results lacks a signal telling it, “Take notice — wrong answer!” These brains will fail to learn from their mistakes and are less likely to improve over time.”  Those in the study who were primed with positive reinforcement had activity in the parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that are associated with reflection and correction.  The brain “remembered” the mistake and attempted to use that information to help deal with the future.  The brain thus generates its own optimism – it is possible to learn from mistakes.

It’s Time for the New Year

“It is a striking fact, easily overlooked, that in the New Testament Jesus Christ begins His public ministry by speaking of time, and that He likewise refers to time in the last conversation that He has with His disciples at the very end of His earthly life.  ‘The time is fulfilled’ (Mk 1:15): so Christ commences His preaching, while immediately before his Ascension He says to the eleven, ‘It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority’ (Acts 1:7).  Both at the outset and at the conclusion of the story, the question of time confronts us time as fulfilled in Christ, time as a mystery still hidden in God.  What, then do we mean by time?”  (Bishop Kallistos Ware, THE INNER KINGDOM, p 181)

Time to Sow, Waiting for the Harvest

Luke 8:5-15

 A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it.  Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture.  And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it.  But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold. When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”  Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?”  And He said, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may not see, And hearing they may not understand.’  Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.  Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.  But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away.  Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity.  But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.

Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović wrote:

God may be slow in one generation, but He is not slow in the whole life-span of all generation.  He often sows in one generation and reaps in the next, and the generation in which God sows thinks that God is very slow, while the generation in which He reaps thinks that He is very quick.  In our human labours, is not every harvest quicker than the ploughing, sowing weeding, and the weary waiting for the crops to ripen?”  ( Homilies, Volume 2)