Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Finding Eden within Time
Humans often prefer the past and future to the present. A poet scribbles a bit of meter about his lost beloved instead of singing about the kind woman he met that morning; a mother reminisces on the days when her children were young, preferring the voice of happy youngsters to the silence of tired twenty-year-olds; business folk track their investments, calculating future dividends, finding little satisfaction in their current wealth. The fear that ennui might pay them a visit keeps the young and the old in pursuit of pleasure to be grasped, and memories to relive. The present is, for the restless, much too quiet, much too boring—only a reminder to them of what they painfully lack.
One evening not long ago, I put on a record, and put one hand in the past and one hand in the future. It wasn’t hard to do really; Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” made it feel good and natural. I guess I felt like the poet scribbling about past joy, and the businessman anticipating next year’s rewards:
I’m a-wonderin’ if she remembers me at all
Many times I’ve often prayed
In the darkness of my night
In the brightness of my day
So if you’re travelin’ in the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine.
Part of the beauty of these lines lies in their relatability. Loss, past joy, the hope of being loved again, and wanting to be remembered well are fundamental parts of the human experience. To give voice to our sorrow and our need for goodness and mercy in an uncertain future is cathartic; it produces a warmth of familiarity, despite the ache of unfulfilled desire, because it connects us to our spirits which long for love and rest not bound by time. Nevertheless, moments of melancholic longing as I experienced while listening to Dylan’s melody, no matter how cathartic, mustn’t become more valuable than what God has given us in the present.
Yes, discontentment—the black root of sustained grief, anger, and anxiety—is easily watered when one pitches her tent with the past and the future, for these two parts of time are persistent reminders of our smallness. We have no power to change the past and little power over the future, especially when the future involves the choices of other people. How common it is for us, like the mother, caught in a pattern of reminiscing, to think, despite painful consequences, that clutching the past or bravely attempting to manipulate the future will bring peace. Yet contrary to what our natural minds tell us, true joy that brings contentment resides here with us, right now, in this very moment.
Love and rest can be found, but they are not found in the past or future. The past and the future may serve as reminders of love, but they are not where love and rest are experienced. Our noblest desires are experienced in the present moment when time becomes irrelevant, as George MacDonald eloquently wrote in his novel Sir Gibbie: “For the bliss of the animals lies in this, that, on their lower level, they shadow the bliss of those—few at any moment on the earth—who do not ‘look before and after, and pine for what is not,’ but live in the holy carelessness of the eternal now.” Traditionally, the term “eternal now” has been applied to how God experiences time. According to Boethius, God is outside of time and so his perception of it is not linear. Time is like a fresco or sculpture which God can view in its entirety. Here, however, MacDonald is using “eternal now” to mean a state of supreme joy made possible through humble acceptance of divine love. The animals in their simplicity rely on God to care for them. Because they accept the blessings that God gives them in the present, they aren’t captive to the ravages of time—loss and regret. Similarly Christ encouraged his disciples to remember that “the birds of the air . . . neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” If sparrows can rest in their creator and his goodness, God’s image bearers can certainly learn how to rest under his protection.
When St. Paul exhorted the Corinthians “not to receive the grace of God in vain,” he declared that “now is the day of salvation.” In other words, the peace of Christ that “holy carelessness” which enables men and women to love one another and experience wonder even in the mundane, is not a memory to be uncovered or a goal to be obtained in the years to come, but a reality available to all who are willing to receive God’s mercy. To live timelessly means to believe that God loves you. Like Adam and Eve who walked with God in Eden, we too can walk with God and experience eternity.
Perhaps all this talk about time and living in the eternal now seems rather esoteric. You might be thinking, I have faith in Christ, but we aren’t in Eden. I can’t rest for long, and worry is never far from me. We do live in time, and to put it bluntly like Rich Mullins did, God “is just plain hard to get” sometimes. It may seem like a contradiction to believe that one can live timelessly in time undisturbed by the past and future. And furthermore, if it is possible to live in MacDonald’s “eternal now,” how does one practically go about doing so? In answer to these questions, let us consider living timelessly in terms of a garden. Nature is often helpful in elucidating challenging concepts. Matt Civico in his article “Gardeners’ World and the Object of Attention,” states that “[p]eople are made for gardens because they are made and nurtured by a gardening God.” God fashioned us from the soil, and our father Adam and mother Eve were the first gardeners. If wisdom can be found in the metaphors of industry how much more will it be found in Dame Nature’s library.
In “Lines Written in Kensington Gardens,” Victorian poet Matthew Arnold keenly illustrates how a garden operates as an earthly sanctuary amidst uncertainty and decay, and serves as a microcosm for the soul at rest. In the first two stanzas of Arnold’s poem, the narrator describes Kensington Garden, one of London’s eight public royal gardens. Resting in the garden’s “lone, open glade . . . / Screened by deep boughs on either hand,” the narrator observes how “each bird” sings his own song “across the girdling city’s hum” and “how green” or lifegiving it is to rest under the arms of the trees, while he hears “the tremulous sheep-cries.” Since Kensington Gardens is a city park, one knows that our narrator can’t possibly hear any livestock; instead the landscape causes him to imagine that he is in the country. This rural image of sheep and shepherds would have immediately reminded Arnold’s audience of the central theme of the pastoral poem—virtue through simplicity—and would have alerted them that the narrator wants his readers to see Kensington Gardens not just as a place to relax but as a place which fosters harmony.
This image of harmony is further defined in stanza three when the narrator watches a gentle “nurse” comfort her “child” and “a thrush . . . / deep in her unknown day’s employ.” At the beginning of the poem, harmony is seen in the songs of the birds and the warmth of the trees. Whereas “the city” reduces humanity to an impersonal “hum,” the garden makes space for “each bird” to have its own voice. Here in the garden people are recognized as unique persons who each have a role in adding goodness to the world. Those who visit the garden are encouraged not to see themselves as an appendage to the city but, like the birds, as diverse creatures who are made to create patterns of beauty. This is demonstrated by the thrush, who, despite the uncertainty of time (the “unknown day”) continues to find meaning in her present task.
Through the example of the nurse, her child, and the thrush, the reader learns that kindness and acceptance free a person from the constraints of the past and future. Despite the uncertainty of time, the “unknown day,” they find meaning in their present tasks. “Here at my feet what wonders pass,” declares the narrator, “what endless active life is here.” In the garden, the narrator finds a joy not dependent upon time. In the garden, in the present moment, the narrator remembers that virtue and beauty bring lasting meaning to his life. The narrator couldn’t experience this soul-satisfying contentment if he was placing all his attention on the past and future, if he didn’t stop to observe what Kensington Gardens could teach him about living well.
The garden teaches the narrator that a person doesn’t have to live in seclusion to find rest for body and soul. You can be a garden of peace in the middle of the city where noise, deadlines, and stress are the companions of nearly everyone. The city garden is a spot where “peace is ever new,” and where “all things . . . go through / The changes of their quiet day.” Notice how the narrator points out how time still affects the garden. This little sanctuary is subject to “change”; the flowers will die in the winter, the birds will fly south in autumn, and the trees will decay. The city garden is not eternal. Yet despite the constraints of time upon the garden, it lives out its days timelessly because it fixes its energy on creating harmony, the offspring of virtue and beauty.
Living timelessly in time, then, is not a contradiction, if one stops putting ultimate value on tomorrow or yesterday. Like a city garden, you can begin to “feel amid the city’s jar / That there abides a peace . . . / Man did not make and cannot mar,” when you cultivate love for yourself and your neighbor. At the conclusion of the poem, the narrator calls upon the “calm soul of all things” to help him attain the lasting peace that he observes in Kensington Garden. How encouraging it is that we as Christians know who the “soul of all things” is, and that he desires to help us make gardens of our sun-scorched lives. This is what it means to live, as MacDonald said, “in the holy carelessness of the eternal now,” and what St. Paul meant when he reminded the Corinthians that “now is the day of salvation.” Life is found in the present moment, for in the present moment God the source of all love and all beauty resides.
I find this encouraging .
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