March 1982, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 60-69.

Mary Collins:
      Spirituality for a Lifetime

Time in liturgical spirituality is not simply a sequence of feasts and seasons but a remembering of God's great deeds in the life of his people and our lives.

Sister Collins, O.S.B., a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Atchison, Kansas, is associate professor in the Department of Religion and Religious Education at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. She teaches in the Liturgical Studies program.

THE writings of Augustine of Hippo and T.S. Eliot come quickly to mind at the start of a reflection on the human meeting with God in the passing of time. Readers of this essay might do well, before going further, to promise themselves to return to the Confessions of Augustine, the Four Quartets of Eliot, his "Ash Wednesday" and "Choruses from 'The Rock.'" Each of these searchers sought the meaning of the human lifetime within history, and both recognized in time remembered a mystery within which humans might discover the living God. But their reflections have distinct orientations. Augustine's long autobiographical account of the remembrance and recollection of the divine presence in his lifetime is counterbalanced by Eliot's sharp poetic crafting of words to capture our more typical contemporary experience: time is opaque; time is a surd.

Culture indeed mediates the human perception and apprehension of time. A culture which invented daylight saving time -- and which can manufacture clocks with switches to make the transition from standard to daylight time and back again the concern of a fleeting moment -- knows that it controls time. Not for this culture the slow rhythms of the tides and phases of the moon, the turning of seasons and planetary orbiting, gestation and maturation. Our culture, which is characterized as an era of historical consciousness, fails to comprehend time and history as the staging ground for divine/human interaction. Rather, our time, to be made useful, is levelled, routinized, and measured in equal segments for easy manipulation. Such is the time we have to manage. More than 10,000 minutes are at our disposal each week, some to kill, some to save, some for work, some left over to spend with friends or family if we plan well.

In this culture we inevitably allocate time for God, too. Sixty minutes a week "for the old guy' is still a minimum for conscientious believers. From the devout there may be sixty a day. Good people struggle to fit God into the heavy claims on their time. But the time-management business tends to overwhelm many who are searching for spiritual depth. Abraham Joshua Heschel made familiar the image of God within Jewish mystical piety which rep' resents him as wandering the earth in search of his beloved humanity. The image can be accommodated for our time-controlling culture. Imagine God alone in a waiting room hoping for an appointment.

The caricature only exaggerates; it does not falsify. Nevertheless, the apprehension and use of time as measured segments is only part of our human perception of time. We also know that this routinized time is liable to be disrupted by unrepeatable events. In our century we have known the time of the First World War, of the Dust Bowl, of the Papacy of John XXIII. Ours has been a time of great death agonies and of the birth struggles of millions. We have known the time of the annihilation of the North- and South- and Meso-American Indian nations. Such times are not able to be calculated in terms of minutes spent or lost or saved. Such times have their worth not from duration but according to the character of the events that mark them: good times or bad, hard times or brutal, bittersweet or ebullient. These eventful times, too, are part of a human lifetime. Network managements report, unfortunately, that presentations of such unique events, whether live or as documentaries, are poorly received by the masses who do not welcome disruption of their "prime-time" expectations.


Christians and Jews also know of something designated liturgical time. It is neither public nor private time in the ordinary sense; but it has an aura of facticity about it, and it can crowd available time. Such liturgical time is often conceived of as the time of God, an overlay superimposed on the time segments we manage and the eventful times that disrupt. Christian liturgical time has in cycles, as it were, its own segments of hours and Sundays and seasons and feasts casting interesting Christological shadows over other times passing by, whether in the steady measure of minutes or the irregular measure of rising and receding events. Whatever time it is, it seems always time for the church to acknowledge God's time. So during the Easter season, whether the year is 1914, 1944, or 1984, the church will ordain new ministers. At sunset each day of each year, whatever is struggling to die or to live, it is time for vespers. Alternately, someone might conceive liturgical time as a massive grid of God's time. Just as the ecclesiastical scheme of dioceses allocates all known earth space and puts every human person within the embrace of Christ through the agency of a local bishop, so liturgical calendars chart all personal time and social history on a map of feasts and seasons and occasional rites, the times of God's visitation.

The problem with these images of liturgical time as God's time superimposed on our times is that they, too, are caricatures. The truth, however disconcerting, is that the liturgical time cycle is not the starting point for understanding the second-level reflection of "God's good time." Understanding the latter requires taking a look at the foundational experiences of God in time which gave rise to time's schematization in worship. A Christian seeking an authentic liturgical spirituality, spirituality for a lifetime, must be rooted in the common ground shared by Augustine and Eliot and the Scriptures. It is from this rich ground that the church has distilled that essence of the mystery of time which is put forward in liturgy.

Augustine caught a complex insight and crafted it into simple language which has made it accessible to many Christian generations. "I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and so new! I have learnt to love you late! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself .... You were with me, but I was not with you."(1) The mutual presence of God and humankind is indeed at the heart of all concern with spirituality and appropriate spiritual disciplines. The presence of God is hidden but able to be known, so Augustine learned, in retrospection, in attentiveness in memory to his early delight with the world and to his experience of life's gifts of food, wisdom, compassion, mercy, love, forgiveness, and humility as counterpoints to his own avarice and arrogance.

Augustine's personal account of memory as a way of access into the mystery of God's saving presence is a classic in spiritual literature. T.S. Eliot might well have had Augustine in mind when he wrote:

                    . . . But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender ....
For most of us, there is only the unattended Moment . . . .(2)
The greatest Christian classic, the writings of the Old and New Testaments which comprise the Bible, returns again and again to the theme of remembrance as the sustaining force of biblical faith. According to one motif dominant in the Old Testament, God and Israel are drawn together and irrevocably united in a symphony of remembrance.


In all Old Testament literature God's remembering always implies God's movement toward whatever he remembers; his remembering always has its effect. When the people flourish, when the poor are fed and sheltered, when the long-awaited child is born, or the rains fall and the grain yields an abundance, God has clearly remembered his people for blessing. God also remembers their in justices, their mutual exploitation, their worshiping idols. And so remembering, God may punish to bring them to repentance and change of heart. On the other hand, God may choose to forget their deviance. God's forgetting, too, has its effect. Whatever God forgets ceases to exist; it is no more. So sins are forgiven.

Summing up his study of this theological viewpoint in the Old Testament, Brevard Childs concluded that the essence of God's remembering lies in his acting toward the world and everything it holds because of a previous commitment to it. The fourteenth-century English mystic Julian of Norwich sums up the nature of that previous commitment revealed by Christ: what is true of everything that is, is that "God made it, God loves it, God keeps it." Within this perspective all of human history is simply the story of God's remembering, the working out of the one continuous movement in which God is creating and gathering the world to himself.

Israel's remembering is another matter. The record is mixed. Israel forgets much: the Rock which bore them, the covenant which keeps them. But the people's forgetfulness is not decisive. As the chorus proclaimed in Leonard Bernstein's Mass, in which he is at his Jewish best, "No, you cannot abolish the Word of the Lord." The forgetting does have consequences, however. When Israel forsakes the covenant, the aliens suffer, the poor go homeless or are imprisoned, wages are withheld, and the rich lord it over others. On the other hand, the great temple hymns collected in the Book of Psalms show that the deeds of God were often celebrated with joy and gratitude in Israel -- their passage through the sea, the gifts of manna and quail and the land flowing with milk and honey, the planting of the vine of David, the beauty of Zion, deliverance from enemies, forgiveness of sin.

Teachers in Israel rescued that remembrance of the great deeds from becoming a recital of ancient history by showing the people that the great deeds of God were constant, extending into each new generation. The deeds and their known consequences themselves contained the evidence that God had taken the initiative in establishing a beneficial relationship with this people and that his intention had never changed. His presence was abiding. But it was left to each new generation to decide whether it would honor the relationship with clear expressions of its mutuality.

According to this viewpoint, the present claims on the people's lives were direct extensions of a movement of God that had its foundations in the decisive events of the past. "You shall not wrong an alien, or lay hands upon him; you were yourselves alien in Egypt" (Exod. 22:21). The key to insight into the present is a good memory. For these teachers in Israel, as Childs puts it, memory serves a critical function, properly relating the present with the past. But the prophets also knew that a good memory of God's historical commitment could give the people a vision of the future with God. Present, past, future -- God has one single purpose. Remembering the past, anticipating the future, believers would have ears to hear and hearts to obey the call of God in the present.


Structures for remembering the living God were thus necessary and integral to the world of the Old Testament faith community. Some structures, many of the earliest ones, were physical. Stone altars and markers were constructed on sites where the patriarchs interacted with God. The problem with such structures was that intensification of remembrance and of readiness to obey was tied to the durability of the marker and the ability of the people to travel to the site of God's visitation. Gone today is the oak of Mambre; pilgrims still go daily to the holy places in Jerusalem and to the Sinai desert. More commonly, especially in the later biblical period, the structures for remembering were tied to time. At the time of the full moon, blow the trumpet! "Observe the month of Abib . . . for it was the month that the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt" (Deut. 16:1).

The times of the world of creation -- the times of the moon and the stars, the sun and its seasons -- were available structures on which to pin the public remembrance of God's saving deeds. "Seven weeks shall be counted: start counting from the time when the sickle is put to the standing grain" (Deut. 16:9). The human use of those times for sowing and harvesting underscored their usefulness as structures for remembering both God's present and future and his historical deeds. The human lifetime with its seasons provided another available time frame on which to fix community remembrance of the God who was always remembering his own. Childbirth, puberty, marriage, the fact of death, and its wake of bereavement all bore traces of the hand of the living God. Each of these moments was a memorial (Hebrew: zikkaron; Greek: anamnesis), an available point of access into the continuing truth of God's creative, sustaining, healing, and redeeming deeds. Furthermore, such timely memorials were witness to God's own effective remembering of the people he made. If Israel kept periodic festivals and performed recurring rites in order to remember God's saving deeds, it was because God had already provided the world with structures for remembering when to remember! A marvelous deed in itself.

The young Augustine, enamored of his professional life of teaching and public speaking and convinced by the Manichees of their objections against Scripture, had no inclination to look into this classic for wisdom concerning time remembered as a point of access to the living God. Augustine set off on his own, virtually unassisted by the living tradition of memorials in time which had been maintained from Judaism and reinterpreted by the Christian faith community. The Christian times for remembering were still tied to the same times as those which structured Jewish faith, for Jesus had been arrested, executed, and glorified by God at the time of the spring festival of Passover. But what dominated Christian remembering at every subsequent memorial time -- annual, seasonal, weekly, daily -- was the greatest deed God had done in Christ Jesus, namely his remembering the world by sending his own Son to open up the way of salvation. If Augustine did not join with the Christian community from one season to the next to contemplate the self-emptying of Jesus and his exaltation by God, God remembered the isolated Augustine nonetheless. The concluding book of the Confessions begins, "I call upon you, O God, my Mercy, who made me and did not forget me when I forgot you." Augustine finally found the living God -- the hard way, he might well have agreed. "You were with me, but I was not with you."


Most Christians before and since the young Augustine have made use of the structure of a liturgical calendar and a sacramental system to support their remembrance of the decisive events of redemption and their continuing power to save. The central day of Christian remembrance, the Lord's Day, is the principal weekly memorial of the Easter event of the death and glorification of Jesus. Within this day there is an intensification of remembrance, when multiple memorials coalesce in the Sunday Eucharist. First, the Christian people, who are the body of Christ in all epochs and cultures, assemble. They are living stones, tangible markers of God's having passed by this way. In their assembly they proclaim the story of salvation which has Christ Jesus as its center. They give thanks for this Christ-event, offering with Jesus the memorial of his body and blood given as he directed for the life of those who gather to put on the mind of Christ. Because that, too, is a gift from God, the assembly intercedes, asking God to remember the church and to pour out the Holy Spirit on it for its own benefit and for the salvation of all the world. The prayer is answered immediately in the gift of the meal which is the body and blood of Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This weekly time of Christian remembering is caught up into the macro- and micro-cycles of a liturgical calendar. The macro-cycle sweeps through the year in strong whorls which pull time toward them, sometimes in less than orderly configurations. The Easter whorl sweeps together the days from the beginning of Lent to Pentecost into an annual festival of the resurrection, looking now at one aspect and then another of the mystery of Christ and his church. It is a special season for reconciling and baptizing, for First Communions, ordaining, and marrying. The Christmas whorl sweeps more widely through the year. It gathers together and neatly ties the weeks of Advent through the twelve days of Christmas to the feast of the baptism of the Lord. But it has undercurrents that reach out to pull in whatever is related to the historical events of the coming at Bethlehem or to the second coming of the Lord Jesus: a celebration of the annunciation to Mary nine months earlier, the birth of John the Baptist six months before. The Christmas cycle plays with light and dark. The darkest days of the year reveal the light to the nations, whereas the brightest days of the year mark the birth of one who is less than the least born into the reign of God.

The micro-cycle of the twenty-four hour day also uses the structures of light and darkness to remember God's great deed done in Christ Jesus. When the dark comes, the candle for evening prayer is lighted, and the Easter light in Christ Jesus is proclaimed every day with thanksgiving. At the light of dawn, it is time for daily praise for the light of creation, the light of revelation, and the light of redemption, which are all one in Christ the Lord.

The majesty of the scheme is indisputable. Nevertheless, observing a liturgical calendar is not an end in itself. The reality it is meant to serve is the mutual abiding presence of God and humankind. Paul, who was proud of his Jewish heritage, was also aware that a liturgical calendar could become an obstacle to awareness of the living God. He counseled the Colossians, "Allow no one to take you to task . . . over the observance of festivals, new moon, or Sabbath" (2:16). Rather, he advised, "Let Christ's peace be arbiter in your hearts .... And be filled with gratitude. Let the message of Christ dwell among you in all its richness" (3:15-16). A liturgical calendar and the occasional sacramental celebrations of the Christian people are a useful, indeed God-given, means to the rich indwelling of Christ in his body which is the church. But indwelling demands openness to the one who comes. And openness comes with trust that the message of Christ is indeed good news. How can anyone be sure?

The Scripture and the saint are both reliable guides to learning trust. Grounds for venturing trust lie in the long history of God's dealings with the world he created, sustains, and clearly loves. Evidence lies also in the remembrance of one's own lifetime with gratitude, from infancy to the present. The liturgical calendar, honed and polished through centuries of use, celebrates the great historical evidence. However, T.S. Eliot warns us of what we know to be true in our day, namely, that the evidence of the biblical narrative may not be cogent even for those who once called the church home:

. . . it seems that something has happened that has
    never happened before: though we know not just
    when, or why, or how, or where.
Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for
    no God; and this has never happened before
That men both deny gods and worship gods . . . .(3)
Eliot was keenly aware of the fragmentation of the human community and its loss of common memory. But for Eliot, perhaps thinking of Augustine, the breaking of the impasse which blocks awareness of the living God must come always through the way of memory. He wrote:
            This is the use of memory:
For liberation -- not less of love but expanding
of love beyond desire, and so liberation
from the future as well as the past.(4)
Memory can nurture spirituality for a lifetime. Moreover, even the journey in memory which for some people must start as a solitary passage through their own lifetime does not end alone, so Augustine discovered. It ends eventually in the recurring public assemblies where the believers who know the living God present in all his graciousness in their own lifetimes, in that of the people of God, and that of the whole race, join their voices in chorus to remember together.

  1. Confessions, X, 26, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 231.
  2. Four Quartets, "The Dry Salvages," V, 1. 200ff. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), p. 44.
  3. "Choruses from 'The Rock"' in Selected Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, Inc., 1964), p. 120.
  4. Four Quartets, "Little Gidding," III, 1. 156ff., p. 55.