Time’s arrow, time’s cycle

One of the things I love about the old missals — like the Saint Andrew one I swear by, my copy dutifully revised to 1962 so that it matches the current Extraordinary Form of the Mass — is the brief introductions for the Sundays and other Feasts. They “set the stage” for the liturgy, like a theatre programme, and provide preparatory hints. Together with the parallel translations of every single liturgical passage, they leave persons who whine that they can’t understand the Mass in Latin with no excuse at all.

Today, for instance, upon this Sunday after Ascension, I am provided, before the Mass even starts, with nine Bible readings on the witness of the Holy Spirit, including six from the Book of Acts. Then on brotherly charity, “to confine ourselves to a few essential texts,” twenty biblical passages are suggested, “including the splendid chapter 13 of I Corinthians,” and a cross-reference to the liturgy for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost. And then, seven more excerpts from Acts are suggested, which undergird the day’s Mass, and add depth and comprehension to both the Epistle (which is from I Peter) and the Gospel (from Saint John).

While being exposed to Protestant or post-Protestant environments, in my childhood, I often heard that Catholics never read the Bible, and I suppose there is some truth in it: that unobservant Catholics often don’t. Though I should think unobservant Protestants also tend to be unobservant.

No need to pick on them, however, to make the essential point: that in “traditional” (i.e. genuine) Catholic worship, the Mass serves as a kind of moving eye, through the whole scriptural heritage, casting light into its parts through the turning seasons. This does not exclude the consecutive reading of scripture, from Genesis through Apocalypse, on the usual chronological terms, following the arrow of time.

Instead, it adds a specifically divine, extra-temporal dimension to that reading, through the use of time in a grand circuit: beginning where we end, and ending at the beginning, and unfolding from any point at all.

The Lord who calls us is not confined to this arrow of time, calling us as much from past and future as from the present moment. And there are moments when we can see that His creation is not strictly linear, either. It is full of anticipations that cannot be explained otherwise than by prevision or foresight. Too, it is full of musical repetitions, often in a new key.

We, little humans, though endowed with minds that work most comfortably, and must work logically, in a linear way, are sometimes vividly aware of an extra-temporal dimension, upon which the present moment also depends. (Not everything that exists can be charted, and for that matter the consecutive time dimension is itself quite invisible, and unplumbable.) We are not without the ability to grasp some non-linear things, including that which is not illogical, but non-logical, because (for example) metaphorical.

For logic I have great respect, but wisdom works on non-logical principles, perhaps supra-logical, and I have even greater respect for wisdom.

A chicken, as I discovered in childhood, can be made to follow a line of feedgrain with its chicken-snout, wherever it leads: even to disaster. My finches and finchesses at breakfast this morning — on the balconata of the High Doganate — show themselves more philosophical and prudent. I left a line of seed along the ledge to an open window, with me on the inside, typing away. They were happy to follow it, almost to the edge of the open window. But then, after mutual consultations, they flew off.

Now, I’m not saying that finches are more Catholic than chickens; only better endowed with good sense. But these are “purple” (i.e. raspberry-splashed) finches, and when the males gather, they do rather resemble Roman Cardinals in conclave.