In this poem John Milton examines the nature of time – its creeping dominance over our lives, the relentless way in which it recalls us to a sense of our mortality. Apparently Milton placed lines 11 to 22 of this poem on a clock-case in his house, to put time in its place, and remind himself that despite the fact that the ticking of the clock reminded him of the shortening of his days, that we also live in the light of Eternity – something which time needed to be reminded of! In a way, he sought to humiliate time, by recalling it to a sense of its own ultimate source, and therefore of its own provisionality.
The ticking of time is something that does indeed, for all of us, need to be put into context, as it is so often a depressing reminder to us of moments wasted and opportunities lost. In terms of our faith as well, reflection on time passed can bring us to the painful conclusion that the amount of our lives given to adoration of God, in prayer or worship, or to service in His name, is woefully small compared to the time spent indulging our own private interests, or worse still, time frittered away on meaningless tasks that give us no enjoyment nor serve no purpose. In On Time, Milton attempts to address this issue of universal human profligacy, as well as providing an antidote – that of seeing our earthly lives in the light of Eternity:
FLY envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more then what is false and vain,
And meerly mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb’d,
And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine,
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine
About the supreme Throne
Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,
When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,
Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.
The question remains as to whether Milton here is seeing Heaven as simply a reward for an unhappy time in this life. There is a possibility that he thought this way, and that line of thinking is certainly a valid one, one which has helped most of us through some very difficult moments at some points in our lives. However, the poem’s comparison of mundane succession and the heavenly eternal ‘now’ may perhaps also help us to reflect on an antidote that goes deeper, and goes further in remedying the all too common disconnect between our daily round and the moments of prayer and worship that intersperse it.
Consideration of the fact that time is something derivative, and succession something less real than the eternal Present that God enjoys (and which we will – hopefully – in some mysterious way participate in), should also remind us that we do not only meet God in that distant indeterminate future, but here and now. Just as God lives in an eternal Present, seeing all as ‘now’, there is then for us something almost sacramental about the present moment, and being more attentive to how God is with us in the present may well provide the means for us to more effectively counter that tendency we all have to while away the hours on this or that, only later regretting how little time we have devoted to God.
By seeing that God is always with us, that we are constantly in His hands, and furthermore that by more fully living in the present moment we, in part, share in that eternal Present which characterises His very being, we can begin to build into our day a more prayerful disposition, so that time is no longer seen as the enemy, stealing away the hours we could have spent doing other things, but as something essentially alien to ultimate reality. In trying to see the present moment in this way, we may more readily experience Eternity greeting us ‘with an individual kiss’ in this life, and the joy of knowing God shall indeed ‘overtake us as a flood’.
Heaven is and will remain a mystery to us in this life, but in committing ourselves to the here and now, and more specifically to God’s presence with us in the here and now, we can have a small foretaste of what mode of being we may experience in the hereafter. Bare glimpses they may be, for we cannot bear to receive the fullness of that glorious light which fills the heavenly places as yet, but they are shards of that same radiance which we, God willing, will one day encounter. Our knowledge that God has already triumphed over ‘Death, and Chance, and thee O Time’ can help us to look at the passage of time differently, even to see it as the ‘meerly mortal dross’ it really is, and to live in God’s reality, however imperfectly, so that, as George Herbert wrote, we may have ‘such a heart, whose pulse may be thy praise’.