Winter 1982, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 335-349.

Joseph T. Culliton:
      Commitment through the Personalization of Time:

By learning to appreciate the present moment as personal presence to God and others, preserving the past and preparing for the future, we find motivation for dedication to our present task.

Father Culliton, C.S.B., is currently professor in, and head of, the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Windsor, in Windsor, Ontario. He has published two books, edited one, and written articles for many periodicals.

TWENTIETH-CENTURY North American society is characterized by speed, tension, and an intense, all-pervasive, paralyzing anxiety that grips many people. They feel themselves caught up in a massive movement of impersonal laws and rapid interactions that completely disregard their personal value and even threaten their very existence. Because they have no real insight into the massive movements and forces that seem to control them, they feel stifled and helpless. Their world appears to be closed in and without meaning. The rate of change is so rapid that spiritual leaders are often unable to provide adequate direction. The spiritual vitality of many Christians is simply being exhausted, so that they are less and less motivated to pursue either spiritual or temporal goals with enthusiasm. The very context in which we live, therefore, forces us to ask if there is really any meaning in life, if there is any absolute value in our own persons, and if there is any lasting significance in our temporal accomplishments.

There are many facets to these complex problems and many ways of approaching them, but to look at them successfully we must situate them in context. They are not simply local or individual problems and cannot be handled effectively as such. My intention is to focus on the debilitating problem of impersonality in its broadest context. First I shall establish that much of the impersonality that pervades our society is directly related to our recent understanding of time. Then I shall show that this immense problem of impersonality can be coped with, at least in part, by personalizing our approach to time.


A few generations ago people could regard themselves rather complacently as the center of the universe, that toward which and for which everything else exists and is developed. In that context people felt at least relatively secure as the peak of creation. Time appeared to be an ally. It was "only a matter of time" till humanity would master and control the forces of the universe that interfered with continuing self-realization. There was an almost universal confidence in spiritual, political, scientific, and technological capacities. In fact, the tendency was to absolutize human capabilities and accomplishments and to be assured that men and women would always find personal meaning and significance through them.

The relatively modern discovery of the unfathomable extent of space and the vast reaches of time has placed us in a new, frightening context and has been a major factor in triggering the present psychological and spiritual crises to which I referred above. We are persuaded today to interpret the whole of perceived reality as an immense universal process of development. From an empirical perspective no specific beginning for the world or for humanity can be known in detail. But it is certain that the world process began millions, if not billions, of years before the appearance of human beings. We were preceded and prepared for by an immense work of geological and biological development. In this perspective we are not the center of the universe. Relatively speaking, we are newcomers in a world that existed and developed before and without our accomplishments.

Our confidence is shaken even further when we realize that we cannot imagine a definite end to the whole world process nor see with any degree of clarity its direction, at least on a long-term scale. Yet at the same time, no matter how contradictory it may appear, we believe that we make history. We determine the direction and the future of the world. We are the agents responsible for the future development of ourselves and the universe.

But how can we achieve the human cooperation necessary to insure a beneficial future? Television, telstar, jet travel, and travel in outer space have reduced the world to what McLuhan called the global village. Political, economic, and social changes on the far side of the globe have effects that touch us personally. The nations of the world, however, have not yet adequately acknowledged their radical dependence on each other in practice. The problems of inflation, poverty, unemployment, and overpopulation cannot be solved by the isolated efforts of individual nations. Until greater cooperation occurs, individual persons and countries are left to solve problems over which they lack control, and their efforts appear so inadequate as to be meaningless.

At a more personal level, people have become more and more regulated in our present electronic era. The process of dividing the day, week, and year into set periods of time in which specific actions are to be carried out has steadily increased to the point where today not only one's work but even one's leisure is parcelled out by TV programs of half an hour, an hour, or a two- or three-hour "special." We are constantly made aware of segmented time. The effects of this regimentation of time are frequently depersonalizing. The regularity and inevitability of the scheduling to which we are subjected ties us into a network of rapid shifts and changes over which we have little or no control as persons. Our lives appear brief and fragile in the unending processes in which they are caught up. People feel rushed headlong toward the arbitrary age of sixty-five when they are forced to retire from the work-world which, on the one hand, tended to dominate and impersonalize their lives but, on the other hand, provided their primary opportunity for success and value in the eyes of the public.

Thus, confronted with the immensity of time as well as space, and with the burden of responsibilities for the future, individual persons (whose lives can be snuffed out by an automobile accident) and humanity as a whole (which can be totally destroyed by nuclear war) are being forced to reassess their dignity and limitations. Situating individual and even corporate activities in this immense context has been a major factor in making even our most consequential acts appear small and inconsequential, so that they have lost their meaning. Many people of good will find it increasingly difficult to commit themselves to anything that takes them beyond the immediate satisfaction of the moment. Working for long-term, inclusive goals that will help to build world community seems futile and uninviting. Thus we are challenged to find a new way to look at time and our activities, a way that will help to restore meaning to our own persons and to our temporal and spiritual endeavors.

Instead of thinking of time as the measurement provided by clocks and calendars -- or TV program schedules -- which run on ceaselessly, or as the duration of things, a duration measured by clocks and calendars, we can think of time as personal presence through responsible decisions. In the following pages we shall explore this way of understanding time.


To be surrounded by people who are present to each other in a physical way is depersonalizing. Mere physical juxtaposition is not personal presence. To be physically present to those with whom we ought to communicate and yet to be unable to communicate with them is the essence of hell. We know this experientially and yet we are not inclined to make the sacrifices required to live, work, and carry on all our interactions in a genuinely personal, rather than a merely functional, way. We forget that people cannot be reduced to efficient functionaries whose value is determined in terms of their ability to drive hard bargains and achieve success. Our most characteristic qualities, as persons, are those spiritual capacities that promote personal communication and sharing of each other's lives. We achieve our real fulfillment by relating to God and one another on a personal basis. Thus, the more interactions tend to become impersonal, the more we need to focus on the personal and how it can permeate and sustain even the impersonal, functional aspects of our lives.

To meet this need, it is inadequate to look at the present moment simply in terms of fleeting minutes without content. The present has real meaning when it includes personal presence -- the personal presence of God to people and of people to each other. Personal presence is a spiritual phenomenon insofar as it results from freedom and choice. Persons choose the way and the degree to which they will be present to others. Personal presence requires mutual free communication. The parties involved must be willing to enter into at least a minimal dialogue in which they freely manifest some part of themselves to each other. Even the very superficial expression "hello" is an initial giving of oneself, an invitation to another to respond in a way that will leave the door open for a further reply, one which can be more personal and can therefore increase the degree of personal presence between the parties involved. It is through this ongoing personal dialogue that people create the future out of the present.

The amount of mutual self-revelation required for genuine personal presence is relatively limited. It is not the amount of self-revelation, but the honesty and authenticity of that which is revealed, that enables people to be present to one another. Some ideas, feelings, or values must be revealed to such an extent that the interaction, or dialogue, between the persons involved leads to at least a limited mutual sharing of their lives. A pleasant exchange about the weather establishes personal presence, though obviously not as complete as a personal exchange between lovers.

There is also a degree of openness, sincerity, and receptivity required in personal encounters. The people involved may relate to each other only to the extent that is required in order to accomplish a particular objective of mutual interest to them, selling and buying an article of clothes, for example. Nevertheless, in such interactions they are genuinely present to each other if they show concern and respect for each other. Some relationships, though functional, may be more enduring, such as that between people working in the same firm. Their personal presence not only enriches the present moment but builds a future in which they can continue to relate to one another. The dialogue involved when persons are personally present to each other fosters mutual understanding, which in turn promotes commitment, fidelity, and community. These values can be realized even though relationships remain primarily functional, or utilitarian, if we make a genuine effort to increase our emphasis on the personal.

Every moment of our lives, then, takes on its richest meaning when it is understood as our personal presence to other persons. This present moment in my life, for instance, which is made possible by God's sustaining presence to his creation, has deep personal meaning for me because it is an opportunity for me to be present to my audience, to share my ideas and values with others in a manner in which they can receive them, mull them over, and make their own personal response to them. If the time I spend writing were not conceived in terms of my presence to my readers, the motives behind my efforts would become so superficial as to be insufficient to support my efforts for long. So too, in your respective occupations, the products you manufacture and the services you provide are ways of becoming present to the people you serve. They can bring you together as persons and foster the personal quality of your lives.


Once we see the present moment of time as our presence to other persons, the present becomes extremely personal and therefore something to which we can commit ourselves wholeheartedly. It is possible to commit ourselves to people and their service more readily and eagerly than to abstract ideas, systems, institutions, or merely functional interactions. Time understood in this way, as successive moments of personal communion, will continue to move at a tremendously rapid pace in our world. We certainly will not be able to rest in the present moment for either meaning or security, because our way of being present now will give way to successive moments in which we shall be present to other persons in different ways and to varying degrees. However, our personal experience in the present moment is never really lost because personal presence initiates an ongoing dialogue through which we build the future.

When time is conceived as successive moments of personal presence, the vastness of time as the universe's duration is less overwhelming, and our human responsibilities can be more easily defined. The perennial problem as to whether our responsibility is to concentrate attention on the present or on the future can be seen in a new light. The Epicureans tried to resolve this problem by emphasizing commitment to the present moment at the expense of the future. The Stoics favored commitment to the future at the expense of the present. Numerous thinkers since then have grappled with the problem, but it still retains its urgency: Do I live for today or for tomorrow?

In the context of time as personal presence, responsibility is not something imposed upon us from outside ourselves by God or the state. It is not equivalent to duty insofar as the concept of duty implies having to do something one would prefer to avoid. Responsibility in this present context is freely using one's ability to respond to the presence of persons here and now in situations that ought to be continued or that need to be improved. Our responsibility, therefore, is to commit ourselves completely to the present moment; that is, we must commit ourselves to the presence of our neighbors, and to God's presence in them, in such a way that we respect them and try to share, work, and live with them in a way that will build, out of this sharing, a future in which we can all develop ourselves and live in peace and harmony.

In this understanding of the problem, we take responsibility for the future at the same time as we act responsibly in the present. We commit ourselves exclusively to neither the present nor the future at the expense of the other. This approach is much healthier spiritually than any either/or position. To commit ourselves to the satisfactions of the present moment in such a way as to disregard the future consequences of our actions is to act irresponsibly. To disregard the needs of the present moment in an excessive manner in order to assure a particular desired future is also spiritually destructive. For instance, for a long period of time to deny oneself reasonable satisfaction in the present in order to assure success in the future is personally destructive: one never really enjoys the present moment in order to assure a more satisfying future, which one never allows to come into existence. One's whole life becomes unsatisfying. On the other hand, by living the present moment as fully as possible in accord with sound human and Christian values, one finds satisfaction in the present and creates the best possible future out of it.

Irresponsibility is not merely wasting the present moment. It is also not making ourselves present to others in what we say and do in such a way as to invite communication from them and receive their personal contributions. Irresponsibility is failing to foster human life and community. No man is an island. Our lives are not so private that we can do with our abilities whatever we choose; nor can we arbitrarily choose to use or ignore opportunities to share our lives -- our time as personal presence -- with others.

Genuine progress is moral and spiritual growth achieved through acts that unite people and develop and use the resources of the world to form a world community in which people of all nations can fulfill their personal aspirations. As people of various races and nations become increasingly present and open to each other, their interactions will gradually transform present conditions into future ones that will be satisfying to all. If we conceive of time as these moments of personal presence enriching the present moment and preparing a fulfilling future, time loses its impersonal character as the measurement of clocks and calendars and its overwhelming quality as millions and billions of years of duration. Time may still pass quickly; it may be even more challenging than ever; but it is full of meaning and worthy of our commitment.


When time is regarded as personal presence, the past assumes its full importance in the present. The past is never entirely lost because past interactions with God, parents, family, and friends become a part of us. In fact, one can say that a person is his or her past history. My personal relationship with God and other people not only constitute my past, they constitute me. They make me precisely who I am today. I bring my past to my present relationships in a very real and dynamic way. This is why in the spiritual life there is need for healing of memories and of past emotional scars as well as a need for forgiveness.

In this context, it is also evident why we can never ignore or deny our past but only acknowledge it and build on it. It is just as foolish to attempt to reject our past as it is to attempt to return to it. If spiritual growth is to occur, we must consistently examine our past, recognize the traditional values we are temporarily overlooking, and set about to reincorporate them into the present in a new way.

Many Catholics, for instance, are concerned about specific values that were lost sight of in the immediate wake of Vatican Council II. However, we cannot return to the way we lived those values before that time, but we must see them now in the light of our intervening experience and live them in a new way.

Our approach to time as personal presence also enables us to see the importance of the future on our present behavior. The future is of importance to our actions in the present because it is in and through our acts that the future comes into existence. As persons, we find meaning in our lives by constantly projecting, now in the present moment, new futures for ourselves. If this moment of time, the present, is conceived as personal presence, a moment of responsibility to other persons, then we shall envision, and take steps to create, a future which fosters the personal presence of ourselves to one another and to God, for authentic life is impossible without personal presence and sharing.

Such a goal for our actions, moreover, provides the kind of motivation we need to persevere in difficult tasks. Ultimately the meaning of an action is determined by its end. We will not walk down a passageway that we see is blocked. If we discover that our activity does not have a goal that is worthwhile and open to further development, we terminate it (unless we are neurotic). It makes no sense to continue. Acts that are open-ended and worthwhile are acts that foster presence and therefore foster life, immediately or in the future. Many such acts are difficult, but we are motivated to persevere in them because the good we anticipate through their performance gives meaning to them in the present, even though their benefits are not yet experienced.

In the present moment, moreover, we as Christians make an act of faith in the resurrected Christ. The act is one of personal presence to the risen Lord. Through that act of faith, we grasp a goal -- life in Christ in eternity -- which has an impact on our actions here and now. Both individual actions and life as a whole lose much of their meaning if life simply terminates in death. There is then no absolute value to the human person, and works may appear to be more important than the persons who perform them. The impersonality of such a situation, however, would limit the psychological motivation needed to enable people to face the risks and hardships inherent in the performance of their daily work. An act of Christian faith now, in this present moment, that death is a transition to a new and fuller mode of life in eternity makes the decisions and actions of each moment worthwhile.

For many people, however, the notion of eternity remains ill-defined and psychologically unappealing in spite of the fact that belief in it ought to enrich the meaning of their actions here and now. Our approach to time as personal presence also helps to highlight the meaning and relevance of eternity. When time is regarded exclusively in terms of a succession of empty minutes, eternity is easily conceptualized as endless time, regardless of theologians' most ardent efforts to explain it as entirely outside of time and incapable of being measured in terms of time. A life that would continue as an endless succession of fragmented, fleeting, finite moments to be filled with "something to do" is unappealing. But eternity is something quite different from that. It is an experience of a total personal encounter with the infinite and incomprehensible person of God as he is in himself. Thus eternity is the end, the goal, the fullness of time as personal presence. It is the consummation of all the limited personal presences that we experience now. It is the moment of the ultimately fulfilling and unsurpassable personal presence of God to us.

Certainly God is present to us now, but our experience of his presence is through the created participation he gives us in his life. This presence in time now is limited and sequential, regardless of the fact that it is not only open to, but will be consummated in, his infinite, direct, personal presence in eternity. The experience of being in the immediate presence of infinite personhood, however, will be neither temporal, sequential, nor fragmented. It will be a direct personal encounter which is neither mediated nor fragmented into successive moments. It will be the fulfillment of all we experience in time.

Transposed into biblical language, what we are discussing here is "the already" and "the not yet." The former is the redemptive presence of God which has "already' been given to us through Christ's passion, death, and resurrection. However, we do "not yet" experience the fullness of this presence, nor will we do so in time. It will be ours only when we enter the fullness of the Kingdom in eternity. The present moment of time, as personal presence to God and our neighbour in faith, is a moment to which we must commit ourselves completely, because it is the meeting point between the redemption achieved by Christ in the past and the fullness of eternal life which lies in the future.

We have seen so far that, by reason of choices establishing personal presence in the present moment, persons achieve a value and a future which, in relation to the flow of time, can be called absolute or enduring. Although this understanding does not reduce the vastness of time and its incessant flow, it does personalize time by giving it a personal content-free choices of personal presence -- and an ultimate personal end toward which time is directed: God in the personal presence of eternal life. We have also seen that, although time is a vast linear movement, it is not composed of isolated, empty units. Through our presence and actions each moment of time is filled with value and flows over into, and helps to create, the content of the next moment. Our time as personal choice and presence builds up our persons and creates community, which is necessary for genuine life. Having come to appreciate the continuity that presence gives to life, we shall delve more deeply into the inherent connection between personal presence in time and in eternity, that is, how eternity gives meaning to time.


When time is regarded in terms of personal presence, the inherent, complementary connection between life on earth and resurrected life in eternity becomes more evident. Eternity -- the full, unmediated presence of God -- is not unrelated to our actions on earth, nor can it be reduced to merely a prize promised on the condition that we perform certain acts here on earth. God's promise of eternal life in his presence cannot be compared to the promise of a parent who tells her child that she can have the reward of a candy bar tomorrow if she completes the task for which she is responsible today. In that case, there is no intrinsic connection between the reward and the process of completing the work. Eternal life as the fullness of personal presence to God and his creation is the culmination of our whole life on earth, of everything we are and do, when all of these are seen in terms of our now limited personal presence to God and neighbor. Because eternal life is the consummation of the personal activities and relationships of temporal life, people and the acts they perform possess a radical transcendence. Our persons and acts, especially as establishing personal presence, transcend time completely. They are not limited to either the immediate moment of time in which they occur nor to their temporal consequences; they constitute the possibility or impossibility of eternal life in the full presence of God. We experience the need for, and conceive the possibility of, personal relations and activities that can endure and reach a satisfying consummation, rather than be frustrated by a mere stoppage like death. To experience this possibility and then not be able to achieve it would be most frustrating and psychologically destructive. It would cripple motivation and commitment required for daily life, building society, practicing religion, and growing spiritually. Belief in eternal life, which is personal presence to the risen Christ in the act of faith now, provides a link with that future which alone can give satisfying meaning to temporal life. Even atheists project some sort of "eternal life" in the form of a future perfect human society, to have the motivation necessary for temporal life.

Faith in eternal life provides a universe that is personal and personalizing, that is to say, one that fosters personal awareness and development. It insures us that our personal decisions have some lasting value and that our efforts to build community on earth are performed by us as co-workers cooperating with Christ. We share in his redemptive activity and perform works that are a necessary preparation for his second coming. The possibility of fulfilling our deepest aspirations and achieving our ultimate self-realization in the Kingdom enables us to retain the vitality of spirit required for perseverance and commitment now in the often humdrum, routine activities of life in time.

The most satisfying self-realization for us involves the full exercise of our most characteristic actions. These are our acts of knowing and loving, acts which are the very heart of personal presence. Ultimately, the only satisfactory end for our present processes of knowing and loving must be unending acts of knowing and loving. Whereas during life we strive to be present to others and to God through limited acts of knowing and loving, in heaven these efforts will be brought to their fullness in an act of loving knowledge which exceeds anything we can imagine now. We shall experience, to the extent of our individual capacities as graced by God, the direct presence of both God and his people. The one act of loving knowledge of God will not only embrace all his children, it will also enable us to be fully present to ourselves and to achieve total self-awareness. Thus, eternal life in the presence of God will consummate our present striving for self-knowledge and personal identity, two of our most central spiritual aspirations.

We have been noting how living in the presence of Christ provides us with an ultimate goal in life, the fullness of personal presence to God in eternity, which, in turn, gives added meaning and value to our actions and relationships in time. As loving faith in the risen Christ inspires love of neighbor, that is, moments of personal presence with other people in the present, time as personal presence becomes a means whereby we advance toward the ultimate moment, the supreme "now," when we enter into the fullness of time, the unmediated presence of God to us and us to God. We must note that these moments of personal presence in time are not mere means. mere stepping stones, as it were, whereby we reach full union with God. On the contrary, our love of neighbor, our personalized time, lives on in the end, in the fullness of time. We see this if we reflect on the connection between means and ends.


There is no such thing as a mere means -- something that is only a means. In every instance in which something acts as a means, it is incorporated into and lives on in the end. The means and the end become one and the same. Bricks and mortar are means through which I build a house. Once I have begun the process of uniting even a few bricks with mortar, I have already realized to some extent my goal -- a house in which to dwell. The house is partially completed. Once the last shingle has been put on the roof, the last wiring connected, the house is completed. The means to the house -- the bricks, mortar, shingles, wiring, and pipes -- remain. They become the end; they are the house. In a more subtle way, the means also live on in the end when by theft a person accumulates a million dollars; the person becomes a millionaire, but a millionaire thief. In both these cases, at each step of the way, the end is to some extent partially realized; and when the process is completed, the means live on in the end. The end is the culmination of the process and is not separate from it.

We have conceived of time as personal choice and personal presence to God in faith, and to neighbor in respect, care, and love. We have said that time so understood is a means to eternal life, the freely chosen fullness of personal presence to God and fellow humans beyond time. In light of what we have said in the previous two paragraphs, we can say that the personal choices and presence which make up time are the building blocks of a house, as it were; these acts of communion with God and neighbor do not cease to exist but live on in the end to which they contribute. They are transformed, of course, in their new context, given greater depth, breadth, and intensity; but their substance remains. Faith's knowledge of God is transformed into loving, beatifying vision, and the full freedom of charity issuing in peace and joy unbounded; love of fellow human beings is purified and intensified.

In saying that our acts of personal presence contribute to, and are assumed in, eternity -- in saying that personalized time makes the fullness of time, we do not mean to imply that we establish the kingdom of God, that we make eternity to be what it is. We are, however, in virtue of God's grace, co-creator's with God, and our activity is cooperation with the grace of God in building up the body of Christ. By viewing our time as choices creating personal presence, we can see our involvement in the secular struggles, issues, and aspirations of people here and now not merely as activity "filling up" time, but rather as time building up the body of Christ and preparing for the ultimate coming of the kingdom of God. In this understanding, there is no split between spirituality and service to the world, for the latter, realized in establishing personal presence, prepares for, and is assimilated in, the eternal life which fulfills the human person.

Training ourselves to personalize time, to think of it as personal choices which realize personal presence, will not overcome all the impersonality of time, as we have already warned. It will, however, take us a long way in overcoming the impersonalization we experience when we recognize the vastness of time and the fleeting moment of it which we occupy. It will also help us to cope with the difficulties inherent in human relationships, for every act striving for genuine communion in time is pregnant with the fullness of time and therefore worthy of our effort. The communion we strive for as Christians, however, is not limited to people in our immediate surroundings: it extends to the hungry, the poor, the oppressed, the suffering of the whole world. In striving to build a decent world where all live together in peace and justice, we are not simply "taking up time" or constructively "passing time" but, by means of time, co-creating the fullness of time, eternity with God.