In Germany, where I’ve lived several times, there is a well-known proverb that translates: “Five minutes ahead of time is exactly the right time.” One of my supervisors there once threatened to dock pay when I showed up on time for work one morning. For her, if I wasn’t ahead of time, I wasn’t on time. And I was setting myself on the slippery slope of becoming like the Italians who worked for our company. Unlike the Germans, who showed up diligently by 8:30AM, the Italians waltzed into the office at 10AM and started the so-called workday with a one-hour espresso break. My boss was, as she saw it, saving me from myself. It was only mildly humorous at the time, but now it makes me smile–and ponder.
The “five-minute rule” in Germany reminds me of Evagrius, a fourth-century monk who features prominently in my forthcoming book on despondency. For him, punctuality is not about politeness but askesis. It is a spiritual labor or discipline. We ought to arrive at the right time for things like Liturgy, prayer, and other events and tasks in life that have a clear beginning or deadline—this is part of obedience and training our souls.
To be on time for something is to show you care. You care so much, in fact, you are willing to arrive early and sit there, awkwardly, waiting for everyone else to show up.
Interestingly, though, Evagrius’ notion of the “right time” extends beyond mere punctuality. For him, the right time is the time before the right time. Expressing this idea, he alludes to a dilemma he and his fellow monks commonly struggled against: whether to keep sleeping or wake in time for morning prayers. If Evagrius were Tony Robbins or one of the many other motivational speakers out there who swear by waking up early in the morning, maybe he would have counseled people to wake up five minutes earlier every morning. To ease into things in a manageable way until one can finally be awake on time.
But he wasn’t. Counter-intuitively, Evagrius advised tardy monks to gird their loins and forget simply being on time–aim for being ahead of time. In other words: Is X difficult for you? Then try doing X, plus Y and Z too. For him, there was beauty in waking up before it was actually necessary in order to “exercise the soul in advance” and prepare oneself for prayer.
Evagrius recognized that in waking each morning, we are given the opportunity to assert our God-given free will. When we sleep until the latest possible moment, brushing our oily hair in a rush to make it out the door on time, we feel a false sense of freedom gained from pushing the limits of our daily routine. Often, though, we are more enslaved than ever to time.
Imagine two scenarios: in one, we arrive for something at the latest permissible second, in the other we decide to be ready and calmly arrive with time to spare. Technically, we may be on time in both scenarios, but we are most free in the second. In the first, we play captive to the bonds of temporality—we push and resist until, finally, the hands of the clock force us to give in and get up. But in the latter, we choose act independently of it. Regardless of what the clock says, we decide to act, to gather ourselves and be ready. And in asserting our choice, we weaken time’s tyranny over us.
When I do this, when I carve away at small bits of my own slovenliness, I’m always amazed by how much time seems to open to me. Waking up just ten or twenty minutes earlier–as nice as sleep is–gives me a tiny taste of the freedom of the infinite. The day seems more spacious.
We are also delivered from our very selves, or at least from the worst and most oppressive parts of us. Specifically, we are freed from the sway of bad attitudes and the sense of injustice that erupts whenever we feel forced to do anything the least bit difficult or strenuous. Evagrius wrote:
“He who gets up at the last minute may be certain that he will begin his work sullenly and with full dislike. […] The one who lets himself be pressed to improper haste, or lets himself be lured to negligence, in the end becomes a victim of despondency.”
Just when we think we cannot even wake up on time, we must give ourselves “a proper push” and do so ahead of time. The same goes for other activities in life. We can also extend the idea beyond the realm of time–the general principle is this: when you feel you are least capable of something (being nice to the slow-moving grocer, e.g.) do that thing, and do a little bit more. Don’t just not give the grocer a dirty look, actually give them a smile or ask how their day is going.
Evagrius’ statements about waking up for prayer encapsulate the whole universe of faith. In many ways, the Christian life of faith is our ongoing, “proper push” to awaken ourselves from the sleep of carelessness and mindlessness. Whether we are monks or housewives, whether we live in the fourth century or the twenty first, we are called to vigilant faithfulness. We are, as one therapist I know put it, perpetually called to show up—maybe not for 4 a.m. matins in a desert monastery, but for communion with God, for loving others, for Life itself. We are called to show up now, and to keep showing up for as many breaths as we have within us, to be here-and-now beings who are present with our whole selves before God. In the worst of times, we stop showing up altogether. We stop being here, in fact, we stop truly being anywhere. Our distractions, worries, and grievances do the showing up, disguised as ourselves.
The first steps away from despondency begin by locating ourselves in the “right time.” To do so, we may need to start showing up ahead of time, not only literally, but also figuratively in the sense of setting our aims a bit beyond what is immediately comfortable.