I love discovering new words, especially words that we don’t normally use, words on the margin, words that hold so much truth and aliveness. Those are words that can speak directly to our experiences when we run out of things to articulate.
In a podcast that I recently listened to, Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, unleashes his reflection on two different meanings of time: chronological time and deep time. These concepts of time are rooted from Greek words, chronos and kairos.
Chronological time (chronos), as he argues, is the time that ticks. It’s, for instance, when a bored student stares at the watch in his class, wishing the class would end faster. Chronological time is the short and structured time we inhabit. Unlike chronological time, deep time (kairos) is grand and audacious. Living in deep time means looking at a longer view of time with an unflinching optimism, believing that every moment in our culture is a blink that will pass. As Rohr succinctly says, deep time is, “where time comes to a fullness, and the dots connect.”
The transcript of the interview:
Krista Tippett: “A phrase that you use a lot that I’d like you to just flesh out is an aspect of this progression towards meaning, towards spiritual fullness, is ‘living in deep time.’ Just say what you’re saying there.”
Richard Rohr: “OK, well, let me say, first of all, I’m not sure what I mean by that. [laughs] But a phrase was used in medieval Catholic spirituality was ‘the eternal now.’ ‘When time comes to its fullness,’ is the biblical phrase. I’m sure you’ve been told that in the Greek, in the New Testament, there’s two words for time. Chronos is chronological time, time as duration, one moment after another, and that’s what most of us think of as time.
But there was another word in Greek, kairos. And kairos was deep time. It was when you have those moments where you say, ‘Oh my God, this is it. I get it,’ or, ‘This is as perfect as it can be,’ or, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this,’ or, ‘This moment is summing up the last five years of my life,’ things like that where time comes to a fullness, and the dots connect, when we can learn how to more easily go back to those kind of moments or to live in that kind of space.
Now, I think that’s what the tradition means by the word ‘contemplation,’ that to be a contemplative is to learn to trust deep time and to learn how to rest there and not be wrapped up in chronological time. Because what you’ve learned, especially by my age, is that all of it passes away. The things that you’re so impassioned about when you’re 22 or 42 don’t even mean anything anymore, and yet, you got so angry about it or so invested in it.
So already, the desert fathers and mothers discovered this word ‘contemplation’ because I believe they found the word that most believers use, the word ‘prayer,’ to be so trivialized, so cheapened by misuse. Prayer was sort of a functional thing you did to make announcements to God or tell God things, which God already knew, of course. And they created another word to give us access to this deep time, and that word that kept recurring throughout the 2,000-year history of Christianity was the contemplative mind. It’s a different form of consciousness. It’s a different form of time.
Let me add one thing. We used to, in Latin, use this phrase sub specie aeternitatis, and the old professor used to say, ‘Sub specie aeternitatis.’ And what it means — ‘in the light of eternity.’ In the light of eternity, this thing that you’re so worried about right now — is it really going to mean anything on your deathbed? [laughs] And for some reason, that had the power to relativize the things that a young man would get so impassioned about, positively or negatively. And those were various ways of directing us toward deep time.”