Brethren, Peace and Good to you in Jesus Christ!
In my recent blogpost titled, What is a demon?, Fr. Fortea spoke about the manner in which angels (and demons) experience time, calling it “the aeon”. Today I wanted to share with you his definition, but then I thought that we should first reflect about what is “time” for us before we jump into how angels may experience time, so that we could all relate to it via what St. Thomas Aquinas once called "the analogy of faith".
Bottom line up front: Created, rational beings gifted with intellect and wills (the angels and us), abstract "time" from their perceptions of distance and movement. We'll now see how.
Our definition of time may be as slippery as a flopping fish. Philosophers, theologians, and physicists have speculated about the nature of time since classical times. Even St. Augustine got into the act:
What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not. Yet I say with confidence, that I know that if nothing passed away, there would not be past time; and if nothing were coming, there would not be future time; and if nothing were, there would not be present time. Those two times, therefore, past and future, how are they, when even the past now is not; and the future is not as yet? But should the present be always present, and should it not pass into time past, time truly it could not be, but eternity. If, then, time present -- if it be time -- only comes into existence because it passes into time past, how do we say that even this is, whose cause of being is that it shall not be -- namely, so that we cannot truly say that time is, unless because it tends not to be? (Confessions, Book XI, Chapter XIV, 17).
I think I would not be exaggerating if I were to say that the state of the question has remained thus since St. Augustine’s time – no pun intended. Recently, Scientific American thought the matter of time worthy of a special collector’s edition of their magazine, a very interesting issue if I may say so. Nevertheless, I owe you to keep this matter simple, I want you understand the implications, because it has implications impacting on everyone’s quest for holiness, and not only to accomplish an intellectual exercise in understanding the angels (and demons).
Measuring man time
First, we human beings perceive time as function of change. We perceive time because we see changing things. At its most fundamental level, we may say that time is connected to something called entropy, which is the tendency inherent in all material things to decay. Let me give you an example.
Think of an egg. Take an egg still in its shell and look at it without touching it and without looking at a clock. Look it for a while. The egg doesn’t move, it does nothing, you’re bored. If you look at it persistently you will see it rot. Aha! That’s the first change. The interval between you first watching the egg until it rotted, until you perceived its first entropic change we call “time”, and you can measure that time by the movement (or change) in other things: the movement of the sun or the moon in the sky, the movement of the big hand on the clock on the wall, or the pages you torn off from your desk calendar.
Or perhaps you want to accelerate things and after a short while you grabbed the egg and smashed it on the floor, thereby producing another state predicted by the aforementioned concept of entropy: all things being equal, all material things will tend to a maximum state of disorder in time. Since you were inpatient, you accelerated time in a sense, by effecting maximum disorder on the egg. Now you have a mess.
We talk about “the arrow of time” which always seems to move forward, toward an undefined “future.” This perception arises also from entropy. Let’s do another experiment: don’t clean your egg-mess from the floor. Look at it intently and wait for it to reverse to its original state, for the egg to become whole again. If you don’t want to contemplate the egg mess, go to the nearest junkyard and observe the remnants of a vehicle, any vehicle, and wait for it to reverse its entropic decay and become a new car once again.
You know by experience that doesn’t happen. Entropy has a one way arrow and we human beings are convinced that the arrow of time and that entropy point the same; sometimes we equate both, but that’s inaccurate. It is our perception of time which derives from entropy and since it is a perception, it arises inside our minds. It is grounded on real-life events, but it occurs inside our conscious, self-reflecting minds. Neither the egg-mess on the floor nor the skeleton of a car in a junkyard care one hoot about what time it is or how long they’ve been in their sorry state because they lack conscious, self-reflecting minds like human beings and angels (and demons) do. Therefore, we can reach one first conclusion: time arises from our minds out from our perception of things changing. Inanimate objects don’t perceive time, we do.
Now, let’s talk about measuring time. It follows that we can use anything that changes as a clock, for we use things changing as a measure of time. Hypothetically, we could throw eggs against a wall at periodic intervals and call each smash “a minute.” Thing is, we would all have to agree as to how long such an interval with it and let’s face it, smashing eggs against a wall would be both impractical and a scandalous waste of resources. So, human beings started measuring time, first by looking at the position of the sun during daytime and decided to call the whole interval “a day.” Human beings also observed that the moon underwent phases and began to measure how long the moon took before becoming full again in her cycle and called that interval “a month.” Then human beings noticed that hunting and gathering could be extended during full moons because there was more light available. Later, when humans invented agriculture, they noticed they could plan their seeding and sowing according to the days and moons and a calendar was born. This takes us to our next conclusion: time measures are agreed upon by humans so that everyone can plan their lives and render their duties toward God and others in an orderly fashion. Time still continues to be the perception of things changing by our minds, but now culture intervenes, forcing an agreement as to how long a given interval of time is. We call these conventions.
But these are big expanses of time. How to divide the day so that we can conduct business fairly, giving to God, oneself, and fellowmen the rightful due? Day’s had to be divided into segments and then the movement of the sun – change, movement again – came to the rescue when the sundial was invented. That left the night without timekeeping, adding to its infamy as the symbol of the dominion of darkness.
We’re going to jump through several centuries of clock development to our times and the classical analog clock, you know, the one which is usually round and has numbers from 1 to 12, and three hands to mark “time.” We know that when the big handle on the clock moves from, say, 12 to 1, five minutes have passed and we know that five minutes are five minutes because we have received a convention forcing us to agree that’s so.
Now, there are two similarities between measuring time by marking the sun’s position in the sky and the position of a hand on that dial we call “a clock.” The similarities are: we measure time by noting both the movement of the sun in the sky by measuring how far it has moved from one position to the next. Likewise, a clock-hand moves through a dial and by convention, we’ve all agreed that when the big hand moves from 12 to 1, or from 1 to 2, that 5 minutes have passed; when the small hand moves from 12 to 1 we agree that 1 hour has passed. We have synchronized our clocks with the sun’s movement across the sky to divide the day – and night – into a 24 hour period which we, by convention, call “a day.”
Therefore, let us abstract a fundamental conclusion from all these moving things we use to measure time:
We measure time by abstracting it from the movement of things and the points they occupy in space at intervals agreed upon by long-standing convention.
That’s what time is for us, and the notion is so ingrained in us that its perception is a fundamental part of our psyche.
There’s another fundamental conclusion that we can infer if we thing a little bit harder:
All man-made measures of time are created and therefore, arbitrary and subjective.
Just imagine if the earth rotated a bit faster. The days would be shorter, but we would still call them “days.” Also, shorter days demand a moon orbiting closer to us – a consequence of the law of conservation of angular momentum – and a moon orbiting closer to us would mean a faster moon through the sky, but we would still call its phase changes “a month.” But it would be a shorter month, and we would adjust our calendars and clocks accordingly – shorter hours, shorter minutes – and internalize them in the same way until the perception would become as ingrained in our minds as the current measures of times are to us. The permutations of the speeds and changes in the sun, moon, earth system are infinite so any measure of time derived from any one of the infinite combinations possible are as a consequence, arbitrary.
Remember also: the earth in her rotation, the moon orbiting around us, the sun appearing to “rise” and “set” don’t care about what time it is, but we do. Again, that’s a function of rational, self-reflecting beings, humans in this instance who look for movement and change to measure time as a tool for planning. Being material things, the sun, the moon, the earth are too large for us to notice entropic changes, but for sure being made of matter, these celestial bodies are subject to entropy and to a future of decay and maximum disorder, like our egg.
Measuring angel time
Now that we have a notion of human time and how we have come up with our measurements of time, and our conventions, we can “extrapolate” into “angel time.” In fact we’re almost ready for our first argument based on a fundamental commonality between angels and humans: our contingent existence. We are both created beings, we both have a beginning; we both don’t have an end. God is the only uncreated being, without beginning or end, that’s an attribute that is His very Being, that’s why He’s God and no one else. Everything else He created.
Moving from those facts, we can reason:
Angels are created beings;
Humans are created beings;
Humans experience time;
Therefore, angels also experience time.
That doesn’t tell us anything about how angels experience time, only that they somehow do. For that, we need to reason thusly:
Angels experience time;
Human beings experience time;
Human beings measure their perceptions of time in the movement and change of things;
Therefore, angels measure their perceptions of time also in the movement and change of things.
We’re almost there, I promise! OK, we agree that for both angels and humans, change and movement are the tools we use to measure our respective perceptions of time. But we know that we use some things to measure our perceptions of time, we call them clocks, which are tools that combine movement and change to mark time. Which things angels use to perceive or mark time? We know that angels are pure spirits and immaterial, whereas we are enfleshed spirits. We “reason” because we obtain data from our senses and in an as yet undiscovered process in which our brains and souls interact to reason in steps and produce a series of thoughts that transform into an idea that then transform into a practical conclusion. But angels, being incorporeal by nature, don’t “reason”. Their intellects are free to appraise things as they are without the aid neurons. (You can read more about angels and demons) at Dr. Peter Kreeft’s website, or more in depth in his book, appropriately titled: Angels and Demons: What Do We Really Know about Them? to understand the full Church teaching on this fascinating subject). Now, on to our next reasoning steps:
Human beings are material beings,
Human beings measure time with material things;
Angels are immaterial beings,
Therefore, angels measure time with immaterial things!
Am I saying that angels carry immaterial pocket-watches in their robes to measure time? Ah, no. Because angels are immaterial, they lack bodies; since they don’t suffer entropy, they don’t measure time through the change and movement of things, like our very solid clocks. (They don’t need clothes either, therefore, they lack cloaks and pockets). Being disembodied beings gifted with intellects and wills, what is the one thing they have that can provide a reference for movement and change and therefore, time?
Their thoughts! Now, remember, they don’t reason in steps like we do. They perceive things through their intellectual senses and have a direct insight into the thing they see, understanding immediately what that is. They call things what they are because they see things as they are, unclouded by accidents (such as weight, shape, color, and through willful mislabeling, etc.). That’s why Gabriel called Mary kecharitomene, a noun, not an adjective, meaning “full of grace.” Gabriel called her the way he saw her, but I digress.
Insights pop into angelic minds all the time, following a rhythm of its own in each angel because, each angel, lacking accidents to distinguish him from other angels (again, color, weight, shape, size, etc.) , angels are distinguish by their intellectual individuality and their particular infusion of sanctifying grace. In theology we say that each angel is its own species. An angel species has one, and only one individual; the human species – because we distinguish each other by accidents – are many individuals. Awesome!
Now, the interval between each angelic “thought” or “insight” is the way that an individual angel measures his time. This is the aeon Fr. Fortea speaks about in the essay I shared with you before. We’re there! The change in the angelic mind consists in a thought that the angel forms in his intellect, that wasn’t there before, and that he can hold – or not – before his next insight. Each angel marches to his own clock!
Moreover, angels, since they are unencumbered by matter, can think billions of thoughts at each tic of their clock, and join the dots between the thoughts so-to-speak to make them intelligible to themselves, in a process that would seem “instant” to us. This is the first measure of angel time, the measure each angel has within himself.
But what about “movement”, what moves within the angel that also defines his perception of time? Well, angels being personal beings, they communicate. Who they communicate with? Well, with God of course, and with other angels. Let’s take the latter. A thought moves from Angel 1 to Angel 2. That’s the movement we’re looking for to make “angel time” similar to our time. But since each angel has its own internal “clock” – his own “speed” at which he thinks – angels have to agree with each other on a mutual standard clock at which to communicate, or they would sort of talk over each other. They agree at a speed that seems to us but “an instant” but not to them! It takes them time, angel time!
Want to make this even more awesome? Multiply this conversation by billions of angels and we can begin to picture the greatest and most awesome conversation in Creation! This is their song! Their symphony, their harmony, derives from this concert of insights and thoughts that mesh into a common tempo – which means “time” in Latin. This is the aeon, this is the vast “angel time”. It is a song! But, theirs is a song of what and for whom? A song of praise, sung to God, their Creator! And of whatever they choose to sing about. No wonder we talk about the choirs of angels!
Finally, how do they talk to God? God being God, He is eternal, inhabiting, indwelling every moment of angelic and human time in an eternal Present. God is the only being who is truly timeless throughout all space, the universe, the multiverse if you allow for its existence. All creation is present to God in one single instant of time, where there is neither before nor after, as St. Augustine intuited above. Well, angels talk to God the same way He does to us; He condescends, by meeting us, and elevating us to them by grace. Otherwise, the chasm between God and his creation would be unfathomable, unless He chooses to bridge it, and He has, directly to the angels and to us, in the fullness of time, in the Person of Jesus Christ!
In time, we would march by a different clock, where there would be no decay, no death, no pain, no entropy, and full participants of the immense heavenly choir. We will know the music, the melody, our unique harmony, and the tempo. We will join the eternal conversation, a conversation between humans, angels, and God. This, we call heaven, and we can experience it here in part through prayer, and through participation in the Sacraments, particularly, the Eucharist.
At the moment we enter the Liturgy in earth, the barriers between us and the liturgy in heaven dissolve: we enter that time in which we are present to God, to the angels, and to each other, the way God sees time, as one single moment. The Sacrifice of Christ in Calvary, His resurrection, his ascent and his parousia are present to us as gift in a single moment in which human time and God’s eternal present mesh.
It also follows that, as St. Augustine also observe, since we don’t know what the future will bring and the past is gone, the present moment is where we find God. When we pray, we pray in the present moment and if we are really attentive, we transcend human time and enter the Holy of Holies where the Triune reigns and Loves forever, and ever.