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Thomas International Center
March 2007


Ralph McInerny


Lenten Thoughts
In A fast Time



It is a truism that the past is what no longer is, and of course that is false as well. The flight of a bird describes a trajectory which does not survive its alighting on my lawn. That particular measured motion is no more. Our deeds too slide along the rule of time, or rather the reverse; time is the measure of them according to the before and after, as Aristotle put it. The bird on the lawn is the same bird as it was in the tree; human agents survive their deeds. But they too move from instant to instant, and the interval between is time. Time measures us, and vice versa too.

Man alone of temporal things is aware of time, and that awareness is in a sense the source of time. The measured requires a measure and a measurer as well. One does not have to be Heideggerian to see time as, in a sense, a mark of the human. Sein und zeit. The thing whose movements are measured is more solid than its movements. Birds, leaves, the branch that sways, have a stronger purchase on existence, but that too is precarious. Memory is our revenge on evanescent time.

Souvenirs do not remember; nor do mementos. These substantives derive from verbs that are at home in such uses as Memento homo quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris. The ashes on my forehead are a memento of that remembering. The admonition can only be addressed to a human being. The bird could not remember if it would that it is on its way to dusty death. Only man remembers.

Because of man that which no longer is continues to exist, is held in mind and memory. The past is present when we remember, even though what we remember no longer is. It is the obvious that excites our wonder. And yet we need to be urged to recall the obvious.  Memento homo... When Augustine in the Confessions recounts his vita ante acta, his life becomes present to him across the tenses of time and takes on meaning. Prayer puts us in the presence of God, and we attempt to see ourselves sub specie aeternitatis. The whole of time is present there with neither past nor future. The poor player struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. But on the stage he is engaged in a mimicry of action that tells a story. A play within a play.

Man is the only creature who forgets, because he is the only creature who remembers. Aristotle said that time is rather the cause of corruption than of generation. One of the things he must have meant is that time causes us to forget the obvious right before our eyes. In some ways at least the world is a Heraclitean flow, a kaleidoscopic suite of singular events. Only memory can bind them together, only mind can pluck from them meanings which do not come and go.

And of course remembering points ahead as well as behind. The Ash Wednesday memento is meant to stay with us for at least forty days. A future forty days that are not yet. We exist in a Now that separates what is no more from what is not yet, both of which are present to us. 'Lent' is taken from an adverb if not from a verb. Lente as in festina lente. In time we advance slowly to the time when time will be no more, dragging the past into the future, trying to make sense of it. The Lenten memento is meant to lift our minds to the ultimate reason of our being. Otherwise there is only sound and fury, signifying nothing.

A smudge on the forehead, behind which flow such dusty thoughts as these.


Ralph McInerny