Time, St Augustine, and the “eternal now”


Today is the memorial to St Augustine of Hippo. I teach his Confessions regularly to undergraduates, a book rich with many insights. Among the topics that he covers in that book is the nature of time. Augustine notes a peculiar feature about time that begins with human experience: the past is no longer here and so it “is not.” The future has not yet arrived, and so it, too, “is not.” That would seem to leave us with the present moment. However, even locating the existence of the present is difficult. If I say “now” and mean “this year,” the year in fact includes months and days that are past and the future part of the year that is not yet complete–both of which Augustine has already shown seem not to “be.” Perhaps I say that the present is today, and yet the day also is mostly past and future, and not the present moment. Time can continually be cut up and divided in this way, such that even a sentence that I speak seems to have no “now” that can be held onto securely. Then what is time, if it “is” not in the way that we normally speak of existence?

Augustine first gives a human account of time and says that for human beings, the past is about memory and the future about expectation. If I say that a certain event happened in the past, I’m really talking about my memory of the past. If I say that tomorrow the sun will rise, I’m really naming an expectation. The present is the attention of our consciousness upon expectation as it moves into memory—for example, Augustine talks about praying a psalm where the meaning of the present prayer becomes about the weaving together of the expectation of what is coming in the psalm with the memory of what has been said. Time as we name it is a function of consciousness.

For God, though, Augustine says, things are different. God exists in eternity and created time just as God created all of the created world and its spaces. Eternity is not more and more time, but qualitatively different, “above” created time, to use a spatial metaphor.

I’m back from a weeklong retreat and one of the beautiful experiences of the retreat, which was plentiful with many graces, was the sense of time stretching out horizontally, into what felt like almost timelessness. I also felt a sweetness and peace of eternity that is not about the horizontal endlessness of time, but about a “vertical” touching of something in God that is far deeper than time, an “eternal now”. Time is precious. Time is a gift. But time is created,and there is something deeper than time.