A triple straddle

by Archbishop Stylianos of Australia

Reading the title of this article in a conventional or casual manner, one would of course think that it expresses the simple fact, well-known to all of us, that humanity recently passed through a triple 'threshold': that of the new year, the new century and the new millennium.

And yet the title contains within it deeper messages which are not only noteworthy, but to a great extent tragic as well. We will no doubt approach these meanings by picking up at least the 'scrapings' of the truth, which is conscientiously lived out, by way of calm, cautious and consistent reflection.

Firstly, the term 'straddle', expressly states that the tool of 'action' in this instance are one's legs which, like a bridge, allow the current of time to flow beneath (regardless of whether this is a year, century or millennium). This term puts in place a clear hierarchy between the particular historical person and the totally abstract dimension that we call time. This hierarchical-order underlines the fact that the human being is the source, whereas time is a derived by-product.

While the historicity and 'perishability' of man led ancient peoples to a totally pessimistic understanding of time, considering it to be 'all-consuming' we now see that the legendary omnipotence of time is not simply an unacceptable exaggeration, but rather something far weightier: a tragic self-deception. For, how is it possible for that which is secondary, namely time, to be considered primary and greater than the human being who sets, composes and measures time?

Following this, the adjective 'triple' in this case does not simply mean a simultaneous and plural form of change in the passage of time. Rather, it poses for us more intricate considerations, since we cannot comprehend how it is possible that, at precisely the same moment of midnight between 31st December 1999 and 1st January 2000, the straddling of three unequal lengths of time - such as the year, the century and the millennium - could actually coincide.

It is obvious that, to be more precise, we are dealing here with three homocentric circles. The first is traced out by the extent of a year, the second by that of the century, and the third by that of a millennium. And precisely because the centre in question is none other than man who surveys, reflects and gives an account, all three 'turnings of the page' coincide at the same unique moment on the borderline of the last midnight of December.

With the same thought process we could multiply this straddling to an almost infinite degree, during the mentioned moment when that particular midnight changed, by taking into account the other, already established, units of time (month, week, day, hour, minute, second etc).

The conventional character of time in general therefore becomes readily apparent, and makes us in the first instance reserved, if not reluctant, about such intellectual subdivisions, changes and measurements. In the second stage, however, we feel the obligation to search the word 'conventional' more carefully so that we do not bypass it or, worse still, allow it to discourage us.

Given that time is, as we have seen, a human 'convention' and 'invention', we must accept that the human person engages with 'ideas' and 'experiences' as something parallel to his or her own conscience. This is why those things which are related to one's historical life are called 'occurrences' or 'happenings', in contrast to 'beings' which are the individual creatures themselves, each with its own individuality vis-a-vis the Creator.

Yet if we think more rigourously about the concept of 'conventionality', which we all accept as comprising the deeper 'essence' of time, we shall see things that are even more interesting. Since 'con-vention' (co + vent or venir) is, etymologically, the co-ordinated or agreed common journey of two contributing factors, then conventionality cannot simply signify a supposed or imaginary construction solely of the human mind. Rather, it is a given 'confession' and recognition of an objective reality, outside the human person.

With this objective reality 'given' from outside, we must accept that the human mind is in fact on a 'journey together' when it deals with time as 'convention'. However, the question still remains, "what is this external reality which constitutes the second factor, with which the mind moves together, before reaching the 'convention' of time?" Clearly, the external factor can be none other than the movement of the stars, which is why the first clocks relied on the sun. As is known, day and night, the 24-hour cycle and the four seasons of the year derive from this movement. These factors must be considered as being 'constants' in the common journey of humankind and external nature. All other 'units' of measurement of time are a totally different kind of ‘agreement', as they are decided and agreed upon only between people.

From all the above, one has the distinct feeling that human life unfolds between a dream and reality, while it is not always easy to see the dividing line.

This very perplexity is expressed by the following brief poem, which is inserted as a concluding lyrical commentary on the whole topic:

Official Utopias

Time, believe me, does not go by
it does not even move
for the simple reason that it does not exist.
Yet the stars that revolve unceasingly
until their final death
send forth light and borrow light regulating the seasons
opening and closing the eyelids into day and night.

from Voice of Orthodoxy, v. 22(1-2), January-February 2000
the official publication of the Greek Orthodox Archbiocese of Australia

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