In his 1946 book, Remade for Happiness, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen wrote the unsacred scripture of our day tells us that time is the very essence of things. We are always in a rush to go somewhere, meet someone for lunch, and keep a medical or a business appointment. Life is always on the clock and there never seems to be time for quiet and peaceful reflection or meditation.
Bishop Sheen also faults religions for buying into this myth by failing to adequately teach that man is made for eternity, not the temporal duties and whims of earthly life. Perhaps the legion of religious social workers trying to permanently solve poverty and the other ills of the material world are on the wrong page of eternal history.
Today, the Catholic Church, especially under Pope Francis, seems more concerned about this life than the next. I doubt the late bishop would be in lock step with the pope on this new approach. Sheen taught that all time stands in the way of real happiness because it will not let us make a club sandwich of pleasures.
By its very nature, earthly life forbids us to have too many pleasures together under the penalty of having none at all. Since we are married to time, we can never enjoy the conversations of Shakespeare, Einstein, Bacon and Aquinas. We will never hear the stirring oratory of Demosthenes, Socrates or Edmund Burke. We could never enjoy the calm and serenity of the Middle Ages nor could we experience the thrills of traversing an unblemished American landscape.
Like cats before a fire, we want to prolong all pleasures…permanently…not successively. It is a truism that pleasure is best when there are no clocks involved. We enjoy events the most when we are unaware of how quickly the time has past. The man or woman who has his eye constantly on the clock, watch or iPhone will never enjoy the real pleasures of this life. Time limits essentially spoil and frustrate the inner need for these feelings to go on indefinitely. This natural feeling is at the heart of drug, alcohol and sexual addictions. People cannot let go of the good feelings that emanate from these forbidden fruits.
Sheen wondered aloud—suppose all happiness could be freed from any limitation that would include life, truth and love…not in succession but all rolled into one? This would result in a permanence that Time can never produce. It could only happen in the timelessness of eternity. Only the human imagination can limit what waits for those who have fought the good fight and have died in the loving palm of the Lord Jesus. As Corinthians tell us: eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love Him.
The New York Times Magazine section ran excerpted photos from an October 2014 exhibit from the archives of photographer Nicholas Nixon. For over 40 years, Nixon took annual pictures of his wife and her three sisters in various locations and poses in their native New England. His selections invited viewers to witness and even sense the physical and emotional changes that occurred, not only in their bodies but their manners, attitudes and self-awareness.
It was as if Nixon had captured time in a lens, subtly demonstrating what its passage can do to the human body and spirit. Through the eyes of his camera, we watch the women age while they underwent life’s most humbling experiences. We see the pace of their lives in the furrowed lines that bracket their mouths and foreheads.
We somehow can sense that they are neither undone nor unaware of what time has done to them. We detect more sorrow, perhaps regret in their facial lines as they age but we also feel their resignation and acceptance of the lives they have lived. Nixon also captured the patient endurance of sisterhood in these frozen images as testimonies to time.
As they aged, the sisters appeared to grow closer to each other, physically and emotionally. In the last few photos, we behold the inevitability of their lives getting closer to their completion. No one lives forever is the first fact of life. The finality lingering in a life well lived hovers over these women in the darkening of their palette and in the figures drawing together, huddling as if to stay afloat. Nixon’s images deserve to stay fixed in our collective imagination like an infant’s smile or a waning sunset.