“WELL that was a waste of time!”
I recently overhead these emphatically exclaimed words.
I am reluctant to provide further details as to the circumstances that gave rise to that utterance, lest some individuals reading this be able to name the culprit.
It suffices to say that a deceptively pedestrian phrase set me thinking.
For a Christian, can anything ever be a waste of time?
It seems to me that whenever we employ a variation on that theme – “what a waste of time” – what we are implying is that there is something else more deserving of our attention.
We are claiming that there is some other activity from which we could be deriving more benefit.
While this may be true in some instances, I suspect that in most cases we are making an assessment based on terribly temporal criteria.
As we rattle-off the Our Father at Mass, it might be worth reflecting on the wise words of St John Cassian from the fourth century: “Nobody is able to say the Lord’s prayer sincerely who does not believe that God’s providence intends every situation, be it congenial or not, for good.”
If we truly believe that the love of God holds all things in being at any given moment and, as a result, God has endeavoured to place us in the situation we now find ourselves – stuck in a traffic jam, attending an interminably dull presentation, knee-deep in ironing or dirty-washing – that means that where we currently are is, in fact, the best possible place for us to be.
It cannot be a waste of time, because the Lord of all time – He who created time and is the Lord of all history – is presenting us with an opportunity.
As pointed out by Dominican Father Simon Tugwell, “All the vicissitudes, interior and external, which make life so unpredictable and annoying, must be accepted as precisely the way in which God forms us (…) to look for stability in this life is to resist the decree of providence.”
Whatever our initial reaction might be, the reality proffered to us by the extended hand of God is an opportunity.
To increase in patience.
To grow in charity.
To cultivate any or every virtue.
To be reminded that what we would categorise as the best expenditure of our time might not actually be so in the grand scheme of things.
Once we begin to view events in that light, we slowly – very slowly – begin to realise that God has a rather unique perspective on our lives: “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways; for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Viewed from on-high, perhaps an hour stuck in traffic is just what you need.
“I said to Dawn: Be sudden—to Eve: Be soon;
In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me, grimed with smears.”
English poet Francis Thompson certainly grasped the idea that our sense of appropriate pace and timing might not necessarily concur with that of God.
Lest these thoughts be twisted out of their context, I feel compelled to highlight the fact that certain things can – of course – constitute a “waste” of time in an entirely objective sense.
They are a “waste” of time because they are opposed to a deeper love, understanding and communion with Him who is the Lord of Time.
And I don’t mean Doctor Who.
Certain activities and engagements are exceedingly attractive on a superficial level; they are remarkably engaging and they absorb an enormous amount of our attention.
And they are a complete waste of time.
They are objectively so, because they are inimical to the dignity of a soul capable of knowing and loving God.
Lord Byron wrote a masterful play, published in 1821, plumbing the depths of the biblical story of Cain and Abel from the perspective of the elder son.
Seeing Cain in anguish over the prospect of his own mortality and the seeming futility of all his toil, Lucifer approaches this elder brother and strikes up a conversation.
He offers Cain the prospect of becoming as he is, and Cain asks possibly the most poignant question of the entire play:
Cain: “Are ye happy?”
Lucifer: “We are mighty.”
Cain: ‘Are ye happy?’
Lucifer: “No: art thou?”
Everything Lucifer does is a waste of time because – as his diatribe in the subsequent pages of the play reveals – he is in constant opposition to the plans and workings of God.
And as a result, he is not – cannot be – happy.
Those things that engage him, that occupy his days, those efforts that he considers worthwhile; they are the most eloquent expression of an utter waste of time, because they work towards an end that is void.
St Catherine of Siena described sin as “no-thing” – and that is deadly accurate.
It is nothing; the ultimate waste of time.
Those activities and occupations which are not expressive of the nobility our divine vocation are the only thing that a Christian can ever characterise as a “waste of time”.
And the choice to engage in those activities is only ever made by ourselves.
We are certainly capable of placing ourselves in situations that may seem superficially engaging, but which comprise an objective waste of time – they lead us away from God, rather than towards Him.
This is to be contrasted with any occasion or event in our lives that arises as a result of circumstances beyond our control – some predicament that does not constitute our first choice.
Those situations often bear all the hallmarks of divine providence.
They can never constitute a waste of time.
As with life generally, it is not the occurrence itself that is the important point: it is our reaction – our response – to it.
An apparently meaningless set of circumstances – a seeming “waste of time’ – might be the greatest opportunity we have been offered over the course of a day to grow in our love and knowledge of God; to grow in appreciation of divine providence.
Consider the life of Jesus Christ Himself.
The Lord of all History might well have been entitled to consider conversing with His often woefully dim disciples a complete waste of time.
He might have been tempted to consider giving up His life for a doubting, disbelieving, traitorous bunch of people a waste of time.
Yet he did not; His perspective was rather more expansive than ours.
He went ahead and continued teaching and preaching all the way to the cross.
No doubt on Good Friday some of the disciples themselves thought that they had wasted their time; following a messiah who ended up nailed to a tree.
But they were wrong, just as we can be wrong in our assessment of any given situation – our perspective is rather limited.
Perhaps most importantly, God can even bring good from unexpected situations that result in monstrous evil, as the crucifixion shows most plainly.
The gruesome death of the Son of Man brought about the glorification of Christ and the redemption of all mankind.
In itself, that should serve as a source of great solace to individuals half-way down a path of sin; those of us who occasionally find ourselves up “waste of time” creek without a paddle.
For we are often tempted, once we start down a particularly wasteful path, to opine, “Well, I have started down this road – I may as well continue.”
Yet that is not true.
This side of the grave we always have the opportunity to convert; to “turn back” to God as the word literally means.
Even those actions that can be characterised as a “waste of time” because they draw us away from God or run contrary to His plans – a roundabout way of saying that they are “sinful” – can end up leading us to Our Heavenly Father in an indirect way.
If they help us to realise our dependence on the Almighty and prompt us to turn to Him with a plea of distress and a cry for help, then even those actions or omissions – despite being a result of our own folly and not divine design – can draw us to greater love and knowledge of God.
It is at those moments that we can break out in the prayer composed by the twelfth century Cistercian, William of St Thierry: “Behold me, Lord, not as you have made me but as I have made myself, because I have fallen away from you.”
Even our faults and failings can serve a purpose if they prod us in the direction of humility and away from hubris.
So, when we are next tempted to utter those fateful words – “what a waste of time” – let us pause instead and consider the alternative; perhaps not.