In Time

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Last week I picked up a copy of Time magazine, hardly worth anything because it was a year and a half old, and I noticed the cover story on anxiety. They got that right, I thought, though who knows why the story had more relevance that week than any other. Phones ring, email floods in, we channel surf, gulp fast food, imagine what we want to buy next, struggle for promotions. We can’t control our internal chatter.

In Psalm 39, David writes, "My heart grew hot within me, and as I meditated, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: 'Show me, O LORD, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man's life is but a breath.'"

Centuries ago, Georges de la Tour of Lorraine painted an amazing scene of Mary Magdalen at a dressing table. She gazes into a mirror, her face in a pose of profound meditation. The room is dark except for a candle on the table, which throws intimate light onto her eyes and cheeks and right arm. Her left hand probes the eye-socket of a skull sitting on a book. Her face is reflected in the mirror. She seems to be contemplating her own death. She seems to be exploring, defining, testing. The moment is solitary and creative and dramatic. What she sees in this moment of meditation will stay with her in her active life.

This painting, frankly, is foreign to most of what happens to me. I rarely have time to sit and meditate. Far from actively imagining my own death, I try mostly not to think about it. Our culture conveniently obliges by shoving death under the rug.

But people in other ages knew the value of contemplating one’s own death. Victorious Roman generals were accompanied on their triumphal marches by slaves who whispered in their ears, "Remember thou art mortal." By keeping his death uppermost in mind, he does not forget who he is. By imagining eternity, we live more vibrantly in time.

In the seventeenth century, books on meditation were a normal part of religious life. The books generally suggested that the person wishing to meditate begin with literal and concrete mental images—such as the skull, the candle, and the mirror in the painting of Mary Magdalen—and proceeding to thoughts of God, his goodness, and his mercy. To meditate this way does not change time, but it radically alters the way time feels as it passes.

As St. Francois de Sales wrote in An Introduction to a Devout Life, the goal is to quiet the turmoil of the spirit. Meditation promotes mental tranquility in which spiritual combat, though incessant and vigorous, has a certain mild and effortless ease. de Sales uses the words serenity and simplicity. "Every action of our lives," he writes, "shall be performed in the repose of a heaven-sent peace in which even silence is eloquent." Imagine!