By John Bauerschmidt
It’s a well-worn trope in our day that modern people lead lives that are temporally over-extended. In other words, we have many tasks and obligations and not enough time to perform them. From the parent struggling with a child’s multiple enrichment opportunities, to the employee operating remotely in the 24/7 environment of email and social media, we are pushed and pulled in many directions. We’re secretly proud of being busy, however, and we boast of how harried we are. To the question How are things going? we shamelessly give the response Very busy.
At the same time we’re also under-resourced in opportunities for reflection. One phenomenon is a function of the other, though the relationship is complex. When you’re busy, the first thing to go is reflection on what’s happened (the past), and the next thing to go is planning for what’s ahead (the future). Where in the midst of all this is the still, quiet, center of things? Yet it’s not enough to blame our busy-ness for this, as if a time-management course could give us the time we need. It’s just as likely that our busy-ness is a function of our unwillingness to spend time gathering ourselves. Given more time, we are just as likely to squander it.
St. Augustine was well acquainted with this phenomenon. In this, as in so much else, he was a thoroughly modern man, in fact, one of the principal creators of modernity. Yet for Augustine, the problem of time was more morally troubling than it appears for modern folk. The issue is not that there isn’t enough time, but that we are enmeshed in it at all.
In his Confessions, Augustine wrote that he did not wish “to devour time and to be devoured by it” (Confessions IX.4.10). For the early Augustine, both the materiality and temporality of the world were a distraction. The “simplicity of eternity” (Confessions IX.4.10) was the remedy. Rest was to be found in the changelessness and unity of God, in contrast to the mutability and multiplicity of all things (Confessions IX.4.11). In this, Augustine drew upon the conventions of Neoplatonism, mediated through the preaching of Ambrose and in Latin translations of “certain books of the Platonists,” perhaps those of Plotinus and Porphyry (Confessions VII.9.13).
In the last three books of the Confessions, in a meditation on the beginning of Genesis, Augustine questioned the nature of time and eternity in ways continuous with the earlier autobiographical section of the work. Pinning down the nature of time, especially this present fleeting moment, was enormously difficult. He wrote about time as distentio, a “stretching out,” a word perhaps adapted by him from Plotinus, and originally referring to the pains of the torture rack. Most significantly, Augustine introduced the notion of distentio just as he began to consider time as a phenomenon of the mind. “But of what is it [time] a distension? I do not know, but it would be surprising if it is not that of the mind itself” (Confessions XI.26.33).
Distentio, however, was not morally neutral, as if it were a function of an unproblematic temporality itself: the mind just experiencing one moment after another. The language of torture is telling here. For Augustine, where the mind is concerned there are always moral questions. At the same time, our embodied and temporal nature is neither simply the result of human sin nor the expression of it, as if time or matter were the problem. For the mature Augustine of the great works on The Trinity and the Literal Commentary on Genesis, along with the City of God, the story of the Fall would become not one of a lapse into materiality and temporality from a higher, spiritual realm. Human beings existed in time before the Fall, yet now time is experienced as constraint, as an arena of moral contestation.
Distentio has a remedy. Augustine saw his life as distentio but God’s mercy as better than life itself (Confessions XI.29.39, citing Ps. 63:3). God upholds him (Ps. 63:8, Ps. 18:35) in the Son of Man, the mediator between the unity of God and the multiplicity characteristic of human beings, who live in the midst of many things and through many things. Augustine continues:
So “I might apprehend him in whom also I am apprehended” (Phil. 3:12-14), and leaving behind the old days I might be gathered (colligar) to follow the One, “forgetting the past” and moving not toward those future things which are transitory but to “the things which are before” me, not stretched out (distentus) in distraction but extended (extensus) in reach, not being pulled apart (distentionem) but by concentration (intentionem). So I “pursue the prize of the high calling” .… You are my eternal Father, but I am scattered (dissilui) in times whose order I do not understand. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul, until that day when, purified and molten by the fire of your love, I flow together to merge into you. (Confessions XI.29.39)
“Then shall I find stability and solidity in you, in your truth which imparts form to me” (Confessions XI.30.40). This “stability and solidity” is deferred by Augustine in the Confessions to heaven, in what would become for him a characteristic move of deferral; yet redemption is something more than a morally neutral exit from time and space, from mutability and multiplicity.
As for the here and now, Augustine himself cited the experience of the vision in Ostia, in which his mother Monica and he shared a glimpse of the eternal (Confessions IX.10.23-24). Augustine introduced this narration with the citation of Philippians 3:13, “Forgetting the past and extending forward to what lies ahead,” the same verse that would figure so prominently two books later in his discussion of distentio. Whether Augustine meant that he and Monica had achieved the beatific vision in advance or not, his account of the vision (a past remembered) makes clear the possibilities for connection between this present moment and God’s eternity.
It’s better to gather than to scatter. Our lives have significance, and Augustine’s account of his own life, and the meditation on time and eternity with which it concludes, reminds us that the living of life must be approached with moral seriousness. The alternative to distentio is intentio: scattering and dissolution find their answer in gathering and extension. We live in the midst of many things and through a multiplicity of events, as Augustine says. In time, faithful Christians do well to practice a focused intention and a gathered recollection. It is God’s truth that upholds us, and God’s love that gives form, not only to our understanding but to our very lives themselves.
 All quotations here are from Saint Augustine: Confessions, trans. by Henry Chadwick (Oxford University Press, 1991).
 See Chadwick’s note on p. 121.
 See Chadwick, p. 240; on the torture rack, see Charles Mathews, The Republic of Grace (Eerdmans, 2010), p. 226.
In Bible study today, a participant was commenting on the scattered bones of the slain in Ezekiel 37 as an image of being lost. I was trying to remember the word from Confessions Augustine uses to describe his life outside of Christ, but could not think of it. but here it is–distentio! Thank you.
A nice connection with Ezekiel. You are most welcome.