It’s officially holiday season in the United States and we’re off to the races! We watch the scorecard tick away telling us how many shopping days left until Christmas or the holiday we observe.
My mind swirls: How will I ever find enough time to…decorate? shop? work? write? party? observe? You fill in your own version.
It’s not hard to feel continually out of time during the holidays. That is, if we think of time as something we need to count. But there’s another way we can be with time that might preserve our balance, not just in the holidays but throughout the year.
The Greeks understood this. They spoke of two kinds of time, each represented by the gods Chronos and Kairos.
Chronos governed linear time. He’s usually seen as the guy with the white beard called “Father Time.” His time is measured quantitatively. This is the time we try to save, the time that marches ahead. We look to Chronos when we set our watches or look at our atomic clocks. Chronos time rules most of our work life.
Kairos governed a more qualitative aspect of time, concerned with the right moment, the opportune time, time that is not measured in units. As a god, Kairos is depicted as a graceful, beautiful youth, unscarred by the passage of chronological time. Theologians refer to Kairos time as time that belongs to God, as in the verse from Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.”
Kairos time doesn’t run out. It can’t be controlled, owned or stolen.
Kairos time does not belong to us. And, of course, there are no deadlines in Kairos time!
I found this lovely description of the difference between the two times by John Quek:
“The best way to differentiate between Chronos and Kairos is to see time as either a flowing river which carries us away (Chronos), or a quiet lake which we swim in (Kairos). We all experience time as both, all the time, in whatever we do. We experience Chronos when we are impatiently waiting for something to be over and done with. We experience Kairos when we are so deeply engrossed in an activity that time seems to stand still. In Chronos, we are stressed—in Kairos, we are refreshed.”
We have all had experiences of Kairos time. I feel it during those moments when time seems to stop, when life opens up with a grace-filled numinosity, or when I know, in my bones, that this particular moment is important.
You may have had experiences of Kairos time when:
- You felt that you were called to speak – and you spoke.
- You reached out to a friend at just the right moment.
- You felt like you were dissolving into the art you were painting, the piece on the piano you were playing, the song you sang, or the dance you danced.
- You stood in the woods when everything felt so still.
- You watched the eclipse set the world into darkness.
- You shared in worship, meditation, or a ritual that lifted you out of yourself and transported you into another space.
- Your child was born.
- You were present to someone dying.
Kairos time often occurs in liminal spaces, when we feel suspended at a threshold between two worlds. I have felt it in those precious moments before dawn or at dusk when the worlds of night and day blend together, and I walk with awe.
We can welcome Kairos by cultivating a sense of wonder and sensing the potent moments in ordinary life.
A little bit of Kairos time can transform our days.
Last weekend, I was strolling through Seattle’s downtown Pike Street Market and I walked by a somewhat tacky wait-in-line-to-see-Santa stand where dozens of parents were waiting in the dank cold to have their childrens’ pictures taken with Santa. As I passed the stand, I glanced over my shoulder and saw a family, apparently Asian, whose three-year-old son was standing proudly next to Santa, outfitted spiffily in a bright red vest. The parents, of course, were clicking photos. In that moment, the child’s delight seemed so true and his family’s pride so real that I was swept into a wave of memories. For an instant, I felt the magic of the holidays. For that instant, I lived in Kairos time.
I cherish such moments and wish them for you.
What events offer you an opportunity for sacred sparks of joy? Where are the pockets of wonder in your life? How can you fill the holidays with more magic, awe, surprise, or depth to counterweight the rush of time and the press of obligations?
We can’t hold on to Kairos time.
Yet by cultivating moments when we can step out of time, we gain our bearings and can return to our Chronos-filled holiday time, with eyes wide, moving, perhaps, a little more slowly.