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The Passage of Time

by the Rev. Charles Allen, S.J.

I won't tell you how old I am. You can presume, however, that since I am a devoted fan of Pat Boone, grew up listening to Jack Benny on the radio, wear reading glasses, and have frequent temptations to try Grecian Formula, I am probably well into my fifth or sixth decade.

One of the difficulties of growing old is that one becomes much more conscious of the rapid passing of time. First, one worries about one's parents. People, who were once so young and vigorous are now slowed down with age and you realize that with each passing day the opportunity of enjoying their beloved company is passing quickly. You watch your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews maturing. You share their excitement about going to school, choosing a college, finding a job, getting married and having children of their own, but all the time their growth is a reflection of your aging.

Less than a week after the tragic crash of TWA 800 into Long Island Sound, I found myself on a flight from Newark to Quito, Ecuador. I was going to Quito to spend part of the summer working with a group of Jesuit priests at a trade school and to make my annual eight day retreat. Despite the lovely day of my departure and the thrill of going to a new continent, I couldn't help thinking of the people on TWA 800. How few of them realized that tragic July evening how little time they had left in this life.

Later in the summer, as I made my retreat amongst the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, I spent time in prayer reflecting upon my own mortality. I began to write out a document of instructions to be opened at the time of my death. First, I thought about the many friends that I have made over the years. The members of my own family who are so dear to me, the many men and women whose weddings I have blessed, the children whom I have baptized, and my brother priests whose happiness and heartaches I have had the privilege of sharing. Certainly, I wanted each of them to know how much they meant to me and that, God willing, I would remember them in heaven.

I thought about the many good works that I had, at one time or another, dreamed of doing but was always putting off until tomorrow. What would I do on the day after which there was no tomorrow? What were the things that were really important to me? Was it that article that I had always wanted to write? The young man or woman who had asked for counseling that I had not gotten back to? The meeting at school to accomplish some project which I had neglected to call? When one reflects on how little time is left in this life, it is amazing how one gets a perspective on what is truly important and what absolutely should be done.

Finally, I reflected on my own relationship with God. In Quito, at a height of 10,000 feet, the air is wonderfully clear and the sky at night pulsates with the grandeur of God's creation. At just about eight in the evening the constellation of the Southern Cross is just above the horizon. Night after night I would gaze upon the configuration of stars which so perfectly represents the Cross of Jesus Christ. I would ask myself over and over again: "If tonight is to be my last night on earth, am I prepared to stand in the presence of the One who died for me on that Cross?"

Back in the 1950's when I was a young man there was a popular song with the line: "Time goes by so slowly and time can do so much." Now, forty years later, I do not question that time can do so much, but I certainly do not agree that time goes by slowly. Time goes by very quickly, the question is "what are we doing to see that our time on this earth is spent well; that our time really does do much." Time, for the person of prayer, is always a subject of meaningful contemplation.

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