Whenever a discussion of time arises in the classroom, I often show students Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son and say, “This is time.”
Saturn was the Roman name of Cronus, the Titan who personified time and, fearing one of his children would destroy him, consumed them directly after they were born.
Time gives and time takes away. Time brings fruit to full ripeness, but time also rots fruit. In Ecclesiastes 3, Solomon pays tribute to the awful nature of time. “A time to gather stones and a time to cast away stones.” Time always doubles back on itself. God has made all things beautiful in their time, but time is ever slipping away. “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, I have no pleasure in them…” Solomon teaches later, marrying even the joy of the present with a dread of the time to come.
As an American, I suppose it is easier to accept these teachings than were I European. Nothing in America is particularly old. We are amazed when we walk into used bookstores and find something published in the 1920s. Our standards for “classic” and “antique,” at least so far as collectibles are concerned, set the bar quite low.
Over the last week I’ve begun watching “Italy Unpacked”, a BBC2 travel documentary series in which English art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli travel around Italy and make Americans embarrassed for their lack of sophistication.
In the opening episode, the duo live it up in Parma, and visit a farm where Parma ham is produced. The basement in which the ham is aged has served as a location for aging Parma ham for over seven hundred years. They visit the University of Bologna, which boasts graduates like Dante and Albrecht Dürer. Elsewhere, Graham-Dixon and Locatelli visit churches dating to the 16th century, clean fountains at an estate Lucrezia Borgia built, and eat 25 year old balsamic vinegar drizzled on Parmigiano-Reggiano made from a recipe that dates to the 14th.
As an amateur classicist from this side of the Atlantic, it’s easy getting star struck at such things. We’ve always had an inferiority complex, after all. Back in the 18th century, America was more or less the Marshall’s of the Western World. The British and French used to send us all of last season’s clothes and home goods— the picked over stuff, the stuff which no one with taste would want.
But I am not merely star struck by what I’ve seen.
As I’ve watched the series, I’ve been impressed by the fact that it is possible to treat a thing in such a way that it will receive time as opposed to resisting time. A jug of whole milk purchased at Kroger will be nearly worthless within a month, but there is a way of treating milk such that it will hold time, be filled with time, perhaps even expand in eminence so that it can acquire more time.
There are certain substances (maybe all substances) that can be so rendered, affected, touched, furnished, submitted— loved, really— that they do not break against the heavy leaning weight of time, but grow as time pours into them. When you taste a fine Pecorino, you are not merely tasting milk, but milk and time. Time is powerful and violent and terrible, but love can tame time. The Acropolis is stone which has tamed time. The blue in the windows at Chartres Cathedral is a color which has tamed time. Wine is grape juice which has tamed time. The Nicene Creed is a poem which has tamed time.
Of all the substances best suited to receiving time, as opposed to being devoured by it, there is none greater than human flesh.
Peter quotes Isaiah in his first epistle: “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you.
Man was made for union with the Word of God; he is incomplete and unfinished apart from union with the infinite. Man was made in time, but he was not made for time; time exists for the sake of man and will finally be his servant. God does not receive time, but man’s capacity for time is what makes him a creature.
We live in a culture full of things so ugly and meaningless that time has practically devoured them before they are even fully born. The tragedy of abortion is a sad but fitting tribute to our complete surrender to Cronos. We have become like the things we consume, as well, and our souls have absorbed the flimsiness of our unloved and unlovely junk.
Ask your students, “In 2013, Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop’ played once an hour on a thousand radio stations for pretty much the whole year. Yet now, no one listens to that song. Why?” They will tell you that people are done with it, bored with it. But why? Why was it good before, but not good anymore? Why are people not bored with Beethoven? He’s been around for two hundred years and we’ve not gotten bored with him yet. Why do people get bored with a book like The Celestine Prophesy, but not The Divine Comedy? Why do airports built in the 60s look so stupid, but churches built in the 600s inspire awe? Why do we get bored with some things and not with others?
As an unlovely and awful thing, Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” is a little more decrepit every time we return to it. Cronos is slowly gnawing away what little value the thing had. The song resists renewal. We always return to find “Thrift Shop” in worse shape than we left it. On the other hand, Mozart’s Requiem is a thing which receives time and possesses it, evolving and expanding. Mozart’s Requiem is always bigger when you return to it. Time is leaven to lovely things.
So fill your sons and daughters and students with music and food, images and ethics, cult and virtue which has received time and tamed it, lassoed its awful power and flown to the moon on its steam.