The Mastery of Time

by Evelyn Underhill

“He that believeth shall not make haste.” Isaiah 28:16

“He that believeth shall not make haste.” That is to say, he won’t get rattled or hustled; he won’t let time get on top of him or dictate to him. Doesn’t that speak to all of us of something which deep down we wish were true of ourselves? Time, the enemy. . . How often do you hear people saying, — how often do you hear yourself saying, “Oh, I haven’t got time!” I haven’t got time. . . No, we haven’t, for time has got us, or most of us.

In this western world we have planned to master time. We think we have got it where we want it — around our wrists or on the wall, there at our disposal by turning a radio knob or calling up on the telephone. We have invented machines to measure it with incredible accuracy. (A clock is just being imported for the American missile program — I’m glad to say, from Britain — claimed to be accurate to one three hundred thousand millionth of a second.) We have invented every kind of gadget to save time — so that we can get yet more and more into the twenty-four hours. If someone were to patent an invention for condensed sleep, so as to get the effect of eight hours in two, he would probably be hailed as the greatest benefactor of humankind. Time would have received its knockout blow.

And yet, I wonder. For the net effect of all this is that we have only become more and more the slaves of time. The quiet, unhurried serenity has gone. We cannot do anything without glancing at our watch or consulting our diary; and it frightens me to think of the extent to which my whole waking routine is controlled by what is surely the most ugly of all noises that grates upon the ear at seven o’clock each morning.

If there is a symbol of our age, perhaps it is something that every factory worker does each day of their working lives — I refer to clocking in. (Very soon probably they won’t even have to do that; the clock will itself observe them by radar.) In the ancient world when a person entered a temple, each made a votive offering to a god or a goddess at the door. As twentieth century people file into their shrines, they obediently pay their due to the god that regulates their lives — the clock. It is the clock that measures us, that silent witness that keeps our going in and our coming out and relentlessly records our every movement. That is where all our organization and machinery to free us from time, to save us time, has brought us. Never before have we had such control over things, and never before have we been so enslaved by them. And of nothing is this more true than of time.

And so we take a holiday, a vacation, to gain release from this bondage for a space, to stand back from the rush of things and breathe again. But a holiday is a respite, not a cure. The more we need holidays, the more certain it is that the disease has conquered us and not we it. More and more holidays just to get away from it all is a sure sign of a decaying civilization; it was one of the most obvious marks of the breakdown of the Roman empire. It is a symptom that we haven’t learned how to live so as to re-create ourselves in our work instead of being sapped by it. A car should always be charging its battery as it runs. If it simply uses up without putting back, it has to go into dock to be recharged. It is not a sign that we are running particularly well if we are constantly needing to go into dock.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus is never recorded as taking a holiday? He retired for the purposes of his mission, not from it. He was never destroyed by his work; he was always on top of it. He moved among people as the master of every situation. He was busier than anyone; the multitudes were always at him, yet he had time, for everything and everyone. He was never hurried, or harassed, or too busy. He had complete supremacy over time; he never let it dictate to him. He talked of “my time;” “my hour.” He knew exactly when the moment had come for doing something and when it had not.

And so it has been in lesser degree with those who have caught his spirit; they have time. What is this secret of unhurried souls? It is quite simply that, like Jesus, they have learned what it means to live with him who is the Lord of time, with the one who himself is never hurried or hustled or perturbed. How does it happen, why is it that a person whose life is thus rooted in God and eternity acquires this mastery over time? For two reasons:

1. Because life takes on a new simplicity. We get harassed when life gets too complicated. We become distracted and distraught as one thing after another comes crowding in upon us. We never have time for anything because we have lost the power to do one thing. One always gets the impression from Jesus that he knew at any moment what was the single thing that mattered. We always have time for what we really think is important. You may ask yourself: “Have I got time for this?” The answer is: how important is it to you? Next time you catch yourself saying, “Oh, I haven’t got time for that!” remember you are giving away your priorities. It may be quite right that you haven’t — but then you shouldn’t be harassed about it. What has happened when we say we have time for nothing is that there is no one thing that has an absolute priority in our lives. We do lots and lots of things; we are constantly rushing around frantically busy with this, that, and the other, taking on more and more — very often precisely so that we won’t have to stop and fare the choice which is: what are the few really important things in life?

That’s the first reason why a life lived in God is a life that masters time. One can see the distractions for what they are and center down on the things that really matter. But of course this doesn’t mean that Christians do less than other people. (Look at Jesus again, and think of those people — many of the busiest you have known — who have something of this quality.) And that leads me to the second reason for the mastery of time.

2. Those who live in God have not only got their priorities straight, they have learned that to live with God is to live always in the present, with him who is the eternal Now. We all know people who live in the past — and we usually laugh at them — for they are pretty harmless. But it is much easier, and much more dangerous, to live in the future. Remember how Jesus coupled mistrust of God with anxiety — always worrying about the morrow? And that applies not only to the morrow but to the next job. The reason why we get harassed, again, is that we are always thinking of what we have still got to do rather than of what we are doing.

The secret of the busiest people who are also the calmest is that they are able to concentrate everything on the thing of the moment, without a constant side glance at the clock or a worry whether they shouldn’t rather be doing this, that, or the other instead. Not only are they able to center down upon the things that really matter, they are able to do each of them in turn. They acquire the power to do one thing, and also the power to do one thing at a time. They keep their eyes fixed on the present and don’t dissipate their energies on worry about the future or on regrets about the past.

Living in the present means squarely accepting and responding to it as God’s moment for you now while it is called “today” rather than wishing it were yesterday or tomorrow. There is a verse in Deuteronomy: “In the morning thou shalt say, ‘Would God it were evening!’ And at even thou shalt say, ‘Would God it were morning!”‘ Haven’t we all caught ourselves wishing the present away in this sort of manner? And if you do this, it will be because, as the Deuteronomist says, “Thou shalt have none assurance of thy life” — that is, you shall have a lack of trust, trust of the Father in whose hands the times and seasons are.

A wise man has said: “Only a Christian can live wholly in the present, for to him the past is pardoned and the future is safe in God.” The past is pardoned: the Christian life must be a life without regrets, without re-morse. If you have made a decision, and you still feel, taking it all in all, it was the right one, then don’t look over your shoulder on what might have been. If it was wrong, ask for forgiveness and accept the present consequences, happily and without remorse. Nothing is more corrosive of the powers you should be using to meet the present.

God is eternally living and working in the now. He doesn’t say, “Oh, if only humans hadn’t gotten my purposes into such a frightful mess, I might be able to do something for them.” Patiently he uses every situation, however tangled it may have gotten by human sin, and, like the potter with the plastic clay in his hands, creates out of it a wholly new moment, a fresh situation of opportunity, in which his will can be answered and his design furthered. The Christian is the person who sees every time and every situation, however dreary and repetitive, as God sees it — afresh creation from his hand, demanding its own response in perhaps a wholly new and creative way. Under God he is free over it. He has won through to a purchase over events; he has risen with Christ.

Don’t we envy people who never get flurried, who always, however busy, seem to have time for us and for what they want to do, who are always on top of the clock? I know I do, for they seem to me to possess one of the greatest liberties of our age. Well, that is not an accident in any person, nor is it merely a matter of temperament. It is a quality of saints. It comes from quiet singleness of purpose; it is given to those who have sunk roots deep into eternity, to those who have made up their minds about God and his purpose for them, who see life whole and therefore see it steadily. It is only these who rise above time and its slavery. It is “he that believeth” that “shall not make haste.” (Printed by permission of the Evelyn Underhill Trust)

This article was retrieved by Grace Adolphsen Brame and appeared as part of her article: “Evelyn Underhill and the Mastery of Time,” Spirituality Today Vol. 42, No. 4, 1990. This journal has now been replaced by Spirituality.