Chronos and Kairos: Two Meanings of Time Explained by a Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr

 

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Image by Darkness. Via: (Unsplash)

 

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.”

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Love is a stronger than death. Image by Peter Tandlund. 2012. Via: (Flickr)

 

To enjoy the full podcast:

The Great Stoic Philosopher Seneca on the value of time

 

 

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Seneca. Via: (Classical Wisdom)

 

Something extraordinary happened last week. One of my favorite thinkers, and a self-proclaimed “human guinea pig” aka Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Workweek, gave away freely three volumes of pdf version of some of the most remarkable Stoic writing, starring Lucius Annaeus Seneca or Seneca the Younger. Seneca was born circa 4 BC in present day Spain, and grew up to be one of the most towering figures in the ancient Rome. From being a Nero’s advisor, successful playwright, one of the wealthiest people in the Roman empire, until he was being exiled to the island of Corsica for eight years on the premises of supposed adultery with the emperor’s niece; Seneca had experienced the sweet taste of success and the bitter taste of failure. 

In this first volume of the book titled The Tao of Seneca: Practical Letters from a Stoic Master, there is a letter that shifted the way I think about the value of time. Written centuries ago for Seneca’s friend, Lucilious, the substance of this letter is timely and timeless, reminding us that our time in this world is very short and yet most people are squandering it as if it were replaceable. This letter is a poignant reminder of what we know so deeply but chronically fail to put into practice.

Seneca wrote:

“Continue to act thus, my dear Lucilius–set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands. Make yourself believe the truth of my words–that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness. Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose.”

Seneca was absolutely correct when he said, “Make yourself believe the truth of my words–that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach”. Sometimes we have tried to protect our time but once in a while something beyond our control steals it from our possession. It is normal and occurs all the time. However, Seneca, extracting exclusively from the core of stoicism, wanted us to think critically about the distinction between the things that we can control and we cannot control. Stoicism, the school of Hellenistic philosophy that was founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC, teaches us to accept what we cannot change, and control what we can control–ourselves and our responses.

Touching on humans’ chronic habit to procrastinate, Seneca wrote:

“Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write me that you are doing: hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.”

Thinking differently than Seneca, Adam Grant, one of the most influential management thinkers of the 21st century, has counter-intuitive thoughts on the topic of procrastination. In his recent remarkable book titled Originals: How Non-comformists Move The World argued that “strategic procrastination” is necessary to formulate more creative ideas.

 

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Grant, one of Fast Company’s 100 most creative people in business, wrote:

“Along with providing time to generate novel ideas, procrastination has another benefit: it keeps us open to improvisation. When we plan well in advance, we often stick to the structure we’ve created, closing the door to creative possibilities that might spring into our fields of vision.”

In another page of the book, Grant wrote:

“Great originals are great procrastinators, but they do not skip planning altogether. They procrastinate strategically, making gradual progress by testing and refining different possibilities.”

His video below from Ted-Talk is a worth to watch.

 

 

Returning to our main topic, Seneca, he continued to speak about humans’ chronic habit to waste time. It is funny to ponder that we, humans, are heavily obsessed with protecting our replaceable material possessions such as cars, money, phones, from being lost and stolen. The irony is we are rarely thinking of protecting the most precious and irreplaceable resource that we have, which is our time. 

Seneca wrote:

“Nothing, Lucilious, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity–time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.”

 

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Seneca

 

Seneca, just like the rest of human beings, was far from perfect, but he knew how to articulate his imperfection. The rest of the letter he spoke about his own failure to be in control of his own time and continued to offer his unshakeable truth about the value of time to his dear friend, Lucilious. He wrote:

“You may desire to know how I, who preach to you so freely, am practicing. I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man. My situation, however, is the same as that of may who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: every one forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.

What is the state of things, then? It is this: I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile. Farewell.”

 

 

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The Death of Seneca, 1773 – Jacques-Louis David. Via: (Wikiart.org)