Does every moment count?
Spending time in prayer or reading the Bible should be a top priority for Catholics. Shutterstock

Several years ago, while talking to a group of men, I shook up my listeners a bit — and perhaps also myself — by speaking in praise of wasting time or doing what many people would consider wasting it. After all, I said, most normal individuals were busy at that very moment doing their jobs, mowing their lawns, buying groceries, washing the laundry, saving the world. And here we sat talking about making good use of time but not getting anything done.

I’ll come back to that. For the moment, let’s agree that one person’s good use of time is another person’s waste. But it would be a mistake to leave it at that. Instead, let’s consider an obvious question: Is there any common factor in using time well?

At first sight, it looks as if there weren’t. Good, sincere, conscientious people obviously use time in very different ways and feel they’re right to do so. Taking a nap or running in a marathon, watching a ballgame on television or listening to an opera — people do one thing and not the other all the time and feel perfectly justified. Countless different behaviors represent good use of time for countless different people.

Individual callings

“Let us especially regret the smallest amount of time that we waste or fail to use in loving God.”
St. John of the Cross
“Together with a culture of work, there must be a culture of leisure as gratification. To put it another way: people who work must take the time to relax, to be with their families, to enjoy themselves, read, listen to music, play a sport. But this is being destroyed, in large part, by the elimination of the Sabbath rest day.”
— Pope Francis, as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, in the book “Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words”
“Perfection is found in the purity of our love for God, and this pure love is a delicate plant that grows best where there is plenty of time for it to mature.”
— Thomas Merton in “Spiritual Directions and Meditation”
“The Bible wants to make us notice the need that man has to dedicate a part of his time to experiencing the freedom of things, to examining himself and cultivating a sense of his own greatness and dignity inasmuch as he is God’s image.”

So, does using time well come down to a matter of personal taste?

One ancient answer is that most things people consider good uses of time aren’t really so good. You find that way of thinking in some older books of ascetical practice. According to this view, very nearly the only people who consistently use time well are contemplative religious, most of whose time is devoted to meditation and prayer, with a little manual labor and study on the side.

But although that may be an excellent lifestyle for contemplative religious, it’s surely not suited to laypeople living active lives in the world. Leaving aside practical considerations like the need to support yourself and a family, the reason that’s so is vocation. To put it briefly, your vocation is the key to what constitutes good use of time for you.

That calls for a closer look. At one level, everyone is called to love God and neighbor, and that is his or her vocation. True as that is, though, it’s too general to be of much use. All good people must try to love and serve God and neighbor. But how am I supposed to do that — right here and now, in the circumstances of my life?

At another level, the answer is that you do this by performing the duties of your state in life. Husbands and fathers do what husbands and fathers do, wives and mothers do what wives and mothers do, and so on for priests and religious and everybody else: Do what the duties of your state require.

But that, too, is not nearly specific enough to be of much practical use. Carry out the duties of your state in life, yes; but exactly what does that mean here and now?

Matter of discernment

At this third level, then, we come to the unique personal vocation of each individual. Here using time well means loving God and neighbor, fulfilling the duties of state in life, and doing God’s will for me in regard to all of the above in the present concrete circumstances of my life. Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade, a famous Jesuit spiritual director of the early 18th century, had a name for it: He called it “the sacrament of the present moment.”

From that point of view, the question of what constitutes good use of time has no single answer applicable to everyone. The answer will instead be different, depending on God’s will for each of us and on our ongoing discernment of his will.

To be sure, a prudent person will be guided by the norms of Christian morality as these are embodied in the teaching of the Church and also by the counsel of a reliable spiritual adviser. In the end, though, the only answer suitable for everyone is this: Do what God is asking of you to live out your personal vocation here and now.

And be sure always to bear in mind St. Paul’s advice: “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).

Out of duty

There are of course certain more or less obvious mistakes for everyone to avoid. For people who are serious about the interior life, one of these is doing good things only out of a sense of duty, with no higher motive than that.

A priest letting his hair down once explained how that looked in his case: “I’m no saint. Yes, I work hard and I get a lot of things done. But the fact is I do it because I wouldn’t feel comfortable otherwise.”

He’s hardly alone. “As Americans,” a wise cardinal once remarked to me, “we’re all Puritans and all disciples of Immanuel Kant. We do things out of a sense of duty. And ‘duty’ is something defined externally — an obligation imposed from outside. Keeping busy and doing our duty is essential to our peace of mind. Busyness — activism — is a typically American fault.”

This isn’t an argument against doing your duty. That’s important in itself and important also as a starting point for much else. But it isn’t sufficient for an interior life of growing friendship with God. Duty may not be precisely the enemy of love, but unless one is careful, it can pretty much crowd love out of the picture. But spiritual progress absolutely requires that the driving force of one’s life increasingly be love.

I told the cardinal I didn’t know much about Puritans and Kant, but I did recognize what he was describing as the product of a compulsive personality (easy to recognize because I’ve got one myself). Whatever you attribute it to, it boils down to the same thing in the end: doing what you do because you feel you have to do it. And for people thus afflicted, that is good use of time.

Today the temptations that lead in this direction are probably subtler than ever. It’s easy, for example, to become ensnared by our electronic tools and toys — television, Internet and the rest. You think they’re helping you make good, efficient use of time, but beware: A few years ago I realized that email was leading me down this particular primrose path.

I was starting each day by reading my messages and replying to them. Then, naturally, I’d check the news on the Internet and catch up with some favorite websites. Thus I was spending an hour to an hour-and-a-half of prime time every day on email and Internet instead of doing my work.

The solution was to shift email and Internet to a time slot after work. It’s not only more efficient — it takes some of the pressure out of my schedule and helps me organize my day in light of the real priorities.

Time with the divine

As I suggested at the start, at the top of the priorities list is, or should be, “wasting” time on God. That includes things like regular Mass attendance and reception of the sacraments, daily prayer and meditation, retreats and days of recollection, reading the Bible and other spiritual literature. These aren’t just pious options; they are absolute necessities for anyone interested in maintaining and developing a friendship with God.

“I just don’t have the time,” some people say to that. Heaven help the man who some day has to stand before Jesus and explain, “I didn’t have time”!

Still, there is consolation in the fact that on some deep level, people even today continue to intuit spontaneously the importance of time. My evidence for that is the perennial popularity of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

At bottom, it’s a parable about the passing of time — nostalgic happiness recalling times past, an anxious sense of the fleetingness and preciousness of time here and now, a mix of hopefulness and dread about the future depending on how we use the time that’s given us.

Like words for a poet, color for a painter and sound for a composer, time is everybody’s medium for shaping a life devoted to loving and serving God and neighbor. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor. This is the eighth part of a monthly Year of Faith series on virtues.