The Greeks had more than one word for “time.” They used “chronos” to indicate chronological time, historical time, time that moves from point A to point B. The also had another word, “kairos,” the simplest definition of which is “the right or opportune moment.”
Kairos works apart from and in direct contradiction to chronos, breaking into sequential time like the sudden parting of a moving sea. Isocrates conceptualized kairos for ancient Greek thinkers, from a rhetorical standpoint, as a moment in an argument when an opening appears and must be driven through with force in order for the speaker to win the argument. If one misses the opening, that’s it.
In religion, theologian Paul Tillich has perhaps written most thoroughly about the concept of kairos, which he defined as “the point in history in which time is disturbed by eternity.”
God’s time as opposed to human time.
Kairoi are moments of historical crisis which create an opening for the human spirit, the moment when one must make an existential decision and act in creative collaboration with God. Writers on the subject often cite Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” as a supreme moment of kairos. The speech could only have worked the way it worked on that day, at that moment, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation during a march on Washington at the apex of the Civil Rights Movement. And only he could have given the speech. Always the brilliant rhetorician, MLK would have recognized the crack of light opening for him and driven through it with all the force of his vision for his people: one only needs listen to the improvisational sections of the speech to hear MLK take a winch to that opening and crank a small gap into a wide open window.
I think about kairos a lot lately. The word first appears in the Iliad and refers to a vital or lethal place on the body, one particularly vulnerable to injury. Anyone who has had trouble conceiving would be drawn to such a definition, and anyone who understands in a studied, experiential way the imprecise scientific and spiritual experiment that is conception would understand pregnancy as the most basic, personal moment of kairos, something not entirely human or adhering to chronos. For those whom conception came easy, for whom anything came easy, kairos would be a hard thing to grasp, I think, and these are the people who always tell me, callously if not maliciously, “Don’t worry.”
I say all this because I sense an opening. When I started this blog, I committed to a year of sermons, a year of sequential time in which I would faithfully write a heartfelt and imperfect thing once a week for an immediate audience. I’ve succeeded this week in fulfilling that commitment. In the busiest year of my life, if I count it up right, I’ve written over 100 pages of considered writing by sitting down for 2 or 3 hours each Sunday morning. That means in a year’s time, a year of human time with its human, often mundane, demands, I could write a book.
So I intend to write a book. Some force outside me has (I hope I’m right) opened a side road in history for me that I may press my pedal to the metal and go, go, go since I recognize that I finally have the right subject matter, the right form, the right experience, the right motivation to succeed, or as Tillich wrote, I have become aware of a “moment at which history has matured to the point of being able to receive the breakthrough.”
The rest is up to me.
I thank those of you who read this blog so religiously each week, those of you who sent me messages or said something in person, and you are many more than I could have hoped for. Most writers are starving at some level–quiet, seething narcissists–and you fed me. And most of you aren’t fellow writers, a reality that heartens me to no end. I never wanted to be a writer’s writer. Thank you. If you’d like, you could use this website as a liturgy–a full year’s worth of readings you can read again and again and, maybe, find something new in them. I’d like that.
Lastly, we must live in human time, chronos. That is our burden and our beauty and our most hallowed endeavor. But I encourage you to offer yourself up for more supreme moments when the light cuts a thin crevice into chrono’s weatherworn skin. When it does, follow it.
6 thoughts on “Sermon on Kairos: A Goodbye”
Thank you, Casey! Every one of these has been a shiny gift, a glint in the path, causing me to pause, look closer, see something I didn’t see before.
Will miss…will look forward to…
Endings are hard, mostly sad. But the end is also a start to another adventure, glad I was there from the beginning and feel the sadness now, that means it was important to me, as are all the things you do. Mama
will certainly miss my weekly dose of you, but am thrilled that you are taking on the adventure of a book! no doubt it will be as lovely, thoughtful, wise, & just plain good as what you’ve written here. I can’t wait to read it.
At first I was all like, “Yay! Casey’s writing a book!”
Then Sunday rolled around and I was all like, “Awww… No sermon.”
Seriously, though, thanks for this project. I sit and read each of your essays twice every week, and often comb back to them later. They’re some of my favorite writings on the internet, and they introduced me to more good writing, like Christian Wiman. Good luck on the book!