So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12
Have you ever thought about how we experience time? Time is something we take for granted yet is so mysterious. God’s plan is revealed in time. Not only in the fullness of time, but in the gift of time itself. It is a gift, as it is a creation of God, and the dimension in which we go about receiving redemption.
What could God mean for us, to number our days?
We know someone whose sect doesn’t hold with the celebration of feasts. No festivity for Christmas. None for Easter. To a Catholic who greets every saint’s day as if it’s the last chance to eat a celebratory bowl of ice cream, this is unimaginable. It makes you start thinking through the different kinds of time that God gives us.
He could have given us, simply, a day, if He thought that a day is what we needed for our sanctification. But then He would have limited our perception of time to that span, wouldn’t He have? In other words, we would always think about time as comprising a day. A week, a month, a season, a year — all would be unknown to us, simply because they would be superfluous to what was required for our nature.
Every day would be enough. We’d wake up every morning with a renewed spirit. We would experience the challenges of each twenty-four- hour period without reference to any other changes. In the evening, we’d ask for forgiveness for the ways we had strayed when we were awake, and then we’d retire. We’d speak of being so many thousands of days old! If we wanted to celebrate, we’d not have much time to prepare, really.
Of course, sometimes a day is enough — is all we can apprehend. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Matt. 6:34, DouayRheims). A good part of what we know to be true is contained in those words — that there is no use worrying about tomorrow or crying over yesterday. And, of course, there will come a day when a day is all we have left.
But that can’t be the whole story.
If it were, there would be no need for the week, with its seven days, the uphill climb of work, and then the mercy of rest on Sunday. A week is quite mysterious, by the way, and surely points to the truth of the unique character of Sunday, for whatever would possess all peoples to bunch their days together this way? It seems so arbitrary. Why not three days or four? Surely that is more suited to the primitive (and by extension, presumptively infantile, unsophisticated) mind, which, as the psychologist Jean Piaget has shown, doesn’t count beyond that low number. Or why not count the days by ten, to match the fingers? (Perhaps the Chinese went in this direction, but not for long.) Even given the lunar calendar — which even the Babylonians found only awkwardly lined up with a division of seven, yet they persisted — other numbers seem just as workable if we’re breaking things up. And yet, seven it is.
There would be no need for the four seasons of the year, with their rhythm of growth, bounty, fading glory, and cold death. Without the seasons — without at least the idea of the seasons for those who don’t have four — there would be no mirror of our spiritual life in the nature we see all around us.
And then there would not be the year, with its cycle that resolves into a spiral, going ever upward toward the light of man’s span on earth. Recurrence yet forward motion.
Every year brings its reminder of what happened at this time last year. The reminder gladdens our hearts or renews mourning, as the case may be. We reflect more deeply on just what this birth of a long-awaited child meant to us, or just how we were, at the time, stunned by a departure. Above all, we contemplate the events of salvation in order, with Christ in the center, yet ever renewing.
And that reflection deepens our awareness and our gratitude and our sorrow and our resolve.
But this deepening isn’t meant to occur only on the personal level. We see whole nations celebrating an event — say, victory over a foe — with the healing that remembrance brings.
The Church does this for us as well in her celebrations of the hours, the week, and the liturgical year. Our little oratory can help us follow her. In our home, we will keep alive the mystery that the Church is ever presenting to us.
The Liturgical Seasons
Every year is the same, yet every year brings us closer to our home in heaven. The Church has divided the year into liturgical seasons, each with its own flavor, so to speak. The little oratory helps us live the liturgical year with the Church.
Many parents today search for meaningful ways to convey the richness of the Faith to their children, not realizing that the celebration of the liturgical year, plain and simple, with the Church, is the best way to teach them. And it requires little more than just living along with her. Sure, there are crafts and books and various activities, but the core of liturgical living, as practiced for two millennia now, is what we ought to be after.
In this way we start thinking with the mind of the Church, because her mind is in the seasons. You will find this out as you implement this “seasonal” way of thinking — you will notice a change in the readings and the prayers at Mass, and your prayer table will often reflect that change in a natural and almost effortless way. You will become detached from the frantic way of “celebrating” that the world pushes on us, which is focused on commerce, and attach yourself to the calm, truly joyful way of Mother Church.
The Liturgical seasons expand our horizon of faith
Anyone who becomes frustrated by his limitations in the face of the vastness of the truths of the Faith should remember that salvation is a true story, a narrative that unfolded in history and continues to unfold in his life. The liturgical year doesn’t just enhance our participation in the big moments of that narrative — it layers all the elements in a yearlong chronicle that we can take part in as the situation allows.
Some years, for instance, when a baby is on the way, or a new job is taking up all our available energy, the big moments are all we can handle. In other years, our own personal “Ordinary Time,” when, for instance, we’re in the thick of trying to educate our growing children, as a family we delve into every detail of that story.
When we think of time as a gift and a way to increase devotion to God, some traditions make more sense. Suddenly they don’t seem mindlessly complicated. Each of us will have a very personal list of devotions we would like to keep alive in our consciousness, but if choosing seems overwhelming, we can relax in the thought that tradition has already provided a gentle way to cycle through different aspects of religion. Time has done this for us.
Time continues to unfold in its spiral way, and we can revisit all the necessary thoughts and spiritual aids in order. If we miss something this day or week or year, we will be given an opportunity in the next. Rather than worrying that we have forgotten something, or, worse, realizing that we, in our limited nature, have simply failed to consider part of our Faith, all the aspects are presented to us in this gift of time, which can be represented in the little oratory.
The more you find out about it, the more you appreciate how intimate and comprehensive it is!
“Ointment and perfumes rejoice the heart: and the good counsels of a friend are sweet to the soul” (Prov. 27:9).
Just as the seasons bring us into the “year of grace,” so the celebration of the saints’ lives is indispensable for our humanity. We need to commemorate those who have gone before — whose virtue and strength give us the example we need. Everyone needs a friend.
Without friends, we can’t live — not as real human beings in relation to each other.
The saints are our friends par excellence. They go before us and encourage us. Their friendship is marked by this quality, the very epitome of the meaning of the word friend: they bring us closer to Jesus Christ.
Who wouldn’t celebrate the feast day of a friend? Celebrating feast days satisfies a deep need of ours — to rejoice and be glad in companionship. The Church offers feasts and memorials of the saints in her liturgical calendar. It’s up to the family and the community to decide which of these to commemorate and how. We’re probably all familiar with celebrations of St. Anthony or St. Joseph in Italian sections of cities, but did you know that your family can do the same at home? Whichever saints’ days and feasts appeal to you can be marked by a cake, a special supper, or a treat that you don’t usually have.
At the prayer table, put an icon or prayer card of the saint for the day if you have one, perhaps with a little flower in a vase. If you are very lucky, maybe you have a relic of the saint to venerate! (Acts 19:11–12: “And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.”)
This, then, is an overview of the sorts of time God has given us in His Church and in creation. Next we will look more in depth into hours with the marvelous prayer of the Liturgy, the Liturgy of the Hours.
Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from Clayton and Lawler’s The Little Oratory, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.