“Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away.” ~ Homer, The Iliad
Over 5,000 years ago, a Greek poet observed that the life of a human being is as ephemeral as the leaves of a tree, here one day, gone tomorrow. In our shiny, social media-saturated world, it’s rare to see serious reflections on death, but an awareness of life’s brevity isn’t limited to ancient Greek tragedies. Scripture doesn’t shy away from reminding us that “Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away.” (Psalms 144:4, KJV; see also Psalm 90:10, Isaiah 40:7-8, James 4:14).
The reality that our lives are “as grass,” as short-lived as Homer’s scattered leaves, is a reality our world attempts to deny in almost every way imaginable. But autumn always arrives to serve as a reminder—a beautiful, glorious dying that won’t be ignored.
The days are short, declares the Maple’s fire.
How will you spend them? the golden Aspen asks.
On a more practical level, these questions relate to a common theme I’ve noticed these past few months as I interview women writers and artists in the midst of motherhood at The Most Creative Thing:
Many of us feel like there simply isn’t enough time for the work we believe we’re called to.
No doubt humans have always experienced the relentless march of time and the pressure to use it well, but ours is a particularly harried age—made more fractured and frantic by the very technologies that, ironically, increase our efficiency and capacity to “do more.” We all want to devote our energy to things that matter, but often the demands—the very structure—of our busy lives in the 21st century seem to stand in our way.
As a result, we live under Time’s tyranny, oppressed rather than liberated by the relentless passage of one season to the next.
And yet there are moments.
Moments that break through the monotony. Moments of grace where we’re given a glimpse of eternity and the identity we’re called to as children of God—the Imago Dei. Yes, in these shadow lands we must toil for our daily bread and pay our bills, demands that leave creative people discouraged because we feel forced to neglect our “real work.”
Yet when we have a spare minute to compose that poem or snap that photograph, we must remember that these pastimes are gifts, yes, but they aren’t luxuries or mere “hobbies”—they are part of the Kingdom work we were created to do, work that creates and connects and reflects the glory of God.
In other words, we were made for Timeless Moments.
The whole concept of time—how we perceive it, how we use it, how slowly or quickly it passes—has been on my mind lately, but the seeds were planted long ago when I first read T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and encountered his idea of the “timeless moment.” That opaque phrase has been working on me for years and I’m still unpacking what it might mean. But if God is the eternal “still point” and our lives in this realm of time and space, in stark contrast, are in a constant state of movement, then the places where our finite motion encounters this infinite stillness is what Eliot calls “the dance”:
“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is…”
(Burnt Norton, II, 62-64)
Timeless moments, “the dance”— those rare experiences of transcendence that seem to most frequently take place in worship, in acts of creation, in the glory of nature, or in an authentic and loving connection with another human being. All these beauties are glimpses of eternity.
How else do we make sense of the “thin places” we find throughout this earthly pilgrimage—those historic sites, works of art, or wise people, living or dead, who seem to whisper to us of a world beyond this one?
Is it possible that those fulfilling experiences of creative “flow” so many of us seek as writers and artists are just another way God reminds us that even if the lives of mortals are as fragile as falling leaves, what we do, what we make, what we create “in time” can and does have eternal significance in light of the Resurrection?
The Bible contains two Greek words—Chronos and Kairos—both of which are typically translated into English as “time,” even though they each have their own distinct meaning. Chronos (the root of words like “chronology”) is “clock time”—time that can be measured and weighed. Our modern world is all about charting Chronos down to the second, and as a result, it is ridiculously easy to experience life through the lens of our to-do lists and calendar apps. It’s no accident then that personified Chronos in ancient myth is the god Saturn, who, as the Spanish painter Francisco Goya so terrifyingly portrayed, literally eats his children.
Because isn’t that exactly what Chronos does? Clock time eats away at us. It leaves us feeling devoured.
But the Greeks had another notion of time called Kairos, a word used frequently in the Bible. Kairos is an “opportune time” or a season of ripeness and purpose, what we imply when we say that autumn is a “time of harvest.” Kairos, then, is a moment ripe for picking, a rare instant of wholeness where all is as it should be, and C.S. Lewis’s assertion that “we were made for another world” rings truer than ever even as the earth feels strangely more “like home.” Because Kairos time isn’t a “foretaste of eternity” in the abstract—no, it’s a foretaste of the New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 21-22).
It’s a preview of the dance.
Kairos, like most mysteries, is a difficult thing to describe, but you know it when you see it (or experience it). Kairos can’t be planned or controlled, but I wonder if it can be cultivated the more we train ourselves to pay attention, to notice, to see the cracks in this world where eternity is already breaking through.
Timeless moments. Flow. Kairos. The dance.
Aren’t they all attempts to describe the same thing? The reality that despite the glorious shortness of the autumn season—as well as the brevity of our lives—we can and should devote ourselves to the work that helps us live into our identities as co-creators with God?
This seems to be how Madeleine L’Engle describes the artist’s vocation in Walking on Water:
“The artist at work is in kairos. The child at play, totally thrown outside himself in the game, be it building a sandcastle or making a daisy chain, is in kairos. In kairos, we become what we are called to be as human beings, co-creators with God, touching on the wonder of creation.”
This autumn, may you cultivate time to touch the wonder.
The exquisite featured image is from Julie Jablonski and used with her permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project. We are grateful and rejoice in celebrating her beautiful work.