And tell me, do you play with your children? Do you waste time with your children?
~ Pope Francis
Like an elaborate sand castle in the rain, my plans for a retreat day with my teenage son eroded before my very eyes.
We had tentatively talked about joining some other fathers and sons on a structured retreat in Chicago, but the logistics fell through when the weekend schedule started getting crowded – my son, Crispin, committed to serving Mass Saturday morning and then on to a birthday party around dinner, plus my wife and I had an awards banquet to attend that evening. So, instead of a full-blown retreat experience, I suggested an afternoon trip down to Ancilla College, just to walk the grounds together and visit the beautiful chapel there.
Nope, that fell through as well. Chores, errands, one thing and another, and the day started slipping away. Finally, in a desperate gambit to salvage at least part of the original plan, I asked my son if we could spend an hour or so at The Mount before I dropped him off at the party. Cris agreed.
We got over there, made our way to the Adoration chapel, and took to our knees for a drowsy Rosary. Then, an exploration of the Sisters’ collection of relics and reliquaries, a brief stroll down to the Grotto and back, and our “retreat” was complete. On to the birthday party.
OK, so not exactly the structured, productive day of prayer and reflection that I had hoped for. In fact, to be honest, it was more like killing time at a convent. Yup, killing time…time was killed. Time was laid waste and poured out like a libation, like a sacrifice on the altar of our busy schedules and pressing priorities. I killed my time for Cris, he killed his time for me, and both of us killed time together before God.
And so, wonder of wonders, our makeshift retreat was a resounding success, notwithstanding the thwarted agenda – or perhaps precisely because of the thwarted agenda. Laus Deo!
How so? Yes, our time together might’ve been more fruitful had we been able to engage in organized spiritual exercises – and that can be a goal for future retreat days. But there was a priceless exchange that afternoon, a mutual sacrifice of time that will reverberate throughout our lives in subtle, perhaps even invisible ways.
We all know that time is a limited commodity – that we’re all allotted only so much during our ever-so-brief human sojourn – so killed time is especially precious. I’m convinced that’s the reason my youngest children prefer to go to the pool or the park with me – it’s not the same if I just drop them off to play with each other. It’s not that I’m such a great playmate, but I am their dad and they are particularly interested in my time, whether I play with them or not. It’s also why they look forward to an occasional round of tickle monster at night, and why they clamor for bedtime stories – even if it’s the same stories over and over and over again.
Like my Nick and the first Diary of a Wimpy Kid book. That passage where Gregory is tricked by his brother into getting ready for school in the middle of a summer night? I’ve only read that to Nick, oh, maybe 150 times, and we’ll probably read it many times more. But so what? He knows I think it’s funny, we both laugh (although, admittedly, not as hard as the first 20 times), and he banks on it buying us five minutes of precious time that we can kill with each other.
Speaking of banks, the cinematic Mr. Banks learns the very same lesson by the end of Mary Poppins (1964). You know the scene: Banks sees the light, quits his all-consuming job, and joins his two children for some kite flying in the park. It all turns out alright in the end, Hollywood style, but even so, the message is a good one – and true. The kids weren’t interested in money and position and prestige. They were interested in their father, and they wanted his time.
“The free gift of a parent’s time is so important,” Pope Francis has instructed us, and that’s the way it should be with our prayer. God has given us an example – he has freely and completely given himself to us – and all he asks is that we do our best in imitating him. After all, he doesn’t need our help. He certainly doesn’t ask for our agendas and plans, nor even our companionship or attentions. What he craves, rather, is our very selves, and we satisfy that craving most readily and directly when we freely offer him our time – when we kill our time as a sacrifice borne of love.
Certainly it’s true that prayer can also have a more practical, intercessory dimension – Our Lord did teach us to ask for our “daily bread” – but even then, it’s primarily about relationship because our requests manifest our dependence. The Catechism instructs us that “the life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him,” and it’s a habit that necessarily entails, first of all, giving up time. Again, the Catechism:
Prayer is the life of the new heart. It ought to animate us at every moment…. But we cannot pray “at all times” if we do not pray at specific times, consciously willing it.
Thankfully the Church presents us with a template for this perpetual sacrifice of time in the Liturgy of the Hours – also known as the Divine Office, which includes Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer and the like. The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours speaks of this organized practice of praying through Scripture as a “Consecration of Time,” and it goes on to declare that the purpose “is to sanctify the day and the whole range of human activity” (10).
“Through him (Jesus) let us offer to God an unceasing sacrifice of praise” (Heb 15:15)…. By ancient Christian tradition what distinguishes the liturgy of the hours from other liturgical services is that it consecrates to God the whole cycle of the day and the night (10).
What is said of the Liturgy of the Hours goes for all other forms of prayer and piety as well – starting with the Mass as the perfect prayer, of course, but also practices like the Rosary and Lectio Divina, as well as things as simple as brief stopovers in church to visit the Blessed Sacrament or pausing to kiss a scapular or a crucifix in the rush of the day.
Regardless of the prayer or devotional practice, it’s the intentional surrender of time that makes it a true sacrifice and a free gift. What’s more, we don’t even have to do it all that well for it to count for something. Promise! We have none other than St. Augustine, a Latin church father and doctor of the church, to vouch for us on this point.
To wit: In his Confessions, Augustine devoted an entire book to his ruminations on time, and at one point he had this to say:
But because Thy loving-kindness is better than all lives, behold, my life is but a distraction…. I have been severed amid times, whose order I know not; and my thoughts, even the inmost bowels of my soul, are rent and mangled with tumultuous varieties, until I flow together into Thee, purified and molten by the fire of Thy love.
His life, his time, his actions and thoughts and inner dispositions are a mess: Help! Augustine is transparent in revealing how divided his appetites and desires are, and he recognizes that he will have no peace until all of them are united in Christ.
It’s just that unity – what St. Benedict called a “harmony” of mind and voice – that eluded Augustine, like most of us I imagine. Nevertheless, the Church insists that we aspire to it, offering “praise and petition to God with the same mind and heart as the divine Redeemer when he prayed” (19). So what to do?
Here again, Augustine comes to our aid – he who battled the Donatists and stood firm in defending the efficacy of the Sacraments administered by sinful priests. For St. Augustine knew well that it wasn’t in the perfection of our efforts that our prayers were acceptable, but rather in the perfection of the One who prays through us whenever we make the slightest turn toward him.
God could give us no greater gift than to establish as our Head the Word through whom he created all things and to unite us to that Head as members…. He prays for us as our priest, in us as our Head; he is prayed to by us as our God. Recognize therefore our own voice in him and his voice in us (7).
What God wants is our time, not our lofty thoughts or self-absorbed machinations. Once we abandon our time to him – however briefly – he is at liberty to follow his whims and his will, and he becomes truly our Father. Indeed, it’s as if we’ve come full circle, for like my children and I sharing time for stories and games, our relinquishing of schedules and agendas allows God to treat us as the children we are…and we get to join him in play.
It might reasonably be maintained that the true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground (Chesterton).
A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.