The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. While the first refers to chronological or sequential time, as in the passage of hours and minutes, the pedestrian clack of the high heels on the sidewalk, the second is a moment of indeterminate time in which everything happens. The ‘opportune moment”, the ‘seize the day’ event, is kairotic. The ancient Indians had the same divided notions of time and like the Greeks, they mistrusted wily old Saturn, or Chronos. The Sanskrit equivalent of chronos is kala, from which the goddess Kali, the destroyer of evil forces, takes her name. It is, I suppose, somewhat unfortunate that our beautiful and entirely innocent Lhasa Apso puppy is called Kali – but for quite a different reason – it also means “the dark or blue-black one”, and the image of her dancing on Shiva’s corpse after battle is not a bedtime story we read to her. The Sanskrit word for qualitative time is ritu. Like kairos, it has a spiritual sense to it, time that is lifted out of the trudging ordinariness of life. It also connotes the ‘right’ time, and is still used in Hinduism to refer to the correct, most auspicious moment for various ceremonies and rituals. In Christian theology, kairos is referred to extensively. It has a sense of ‘ripeness’- the exquisite pleasure of a perfectly ripe fig is spoiled if it is picked an instant too early, or too late. This from Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season, and a kairos to every purpose under heaven: A kairos to be born, a kairos to die; a kairos to plant …” and so on. In the Septuagint, every use of the word ‘time’ in the above passage is rendered as kairos.
Capturing an example isn’t easy, because we’re pretty much enslaved to chronological thinking. The moment I first stood in front of the Kotel, my palms flat against its ancient stones was a kairos moment, a window beyond the ticking of the clock, a breath, a whisper of eternity as it brushed past my ear. When we speak of ‘time standing still’, we may be in the midst of a kairos moment. We often will ourselves out of such times, however, because there is a persistent Western trend towards standardisation. Every Starbucks is the same, whether in Cancun or Kuwait. Each Marriott hotel room is decorated in the same, comfortingly predictable fashion and the experience is as identical as different locations can envision. Chain restaurants have extended their reach, every Squid Ink Risotto served is as predictably like another as one tick of a clock is to the next. Travel companies now (oxymoronically) provide package tours for the independent, grassroots traveller who can now enjoy being inspired and awed at precisely-timed intervals. Pop music has been manufactured formulaically for decades, and there is an avalanche of clones that pours out like spaghetti from a pasta maker every time a new book becomes a bestseller. You could fill a library with artless and mostly inferior copies of James Bonds and The Da Vinci Code.
All of this, of course, is designed to make sure nothing too strange or disappointing ever happens to us. The only way to keep safe from disappointment is to avoid any risk of surprise altogether. However in all this milky homogenisation can we hope to encounter kairos?
A couple of days ago, I found myself handing over ten euros and sitting in a starkly beautiful Protestant temple with its bare stone and high ceiling, to listen to a clarinettist, accompanied by a guy with a guitar, neither of whom I’d ever heard of. After five slightly mutinous minutes waiting for the start, the first notes broke the silence and a swelling of anticipation rose in me. The realisation dawned that this was going be something special. I stopped noticing the passage of time. I forgot the annoyance I had felt because I’d just been parked in the place while other people went off to do something else. I forgot that I was tired, and the hundred other things I’d been worrying about. It was a kairos moment – a brief window into another, sunnier, altogether different world where hope sprang almost eternally and people worked hard, helped each other and the days smiled on them. The website offered a Jungian explanation – songs of exile and loss for the nomads, the vagabonds, the refugees. Here’s a link. Small wonder I found resonance.
Finding kairos can be risky, not least because we always risk disappointment. It’s why travel is always hopeful, and, once in a blue, blue moon, a small moment becomes ripe, full, and perfect.
Perfect. We are told, in general, not to expect perfection. If someone promises it they’re either delusional or they’re selling something. We conflate idealism with naïveté and pessimism with ‘being realistic’. But to deny the possibility of the existence of perfection is to deny the evidence which can peep out and surprise us. For a moment, a kairos perfection overshadowed the pounding clunk of the ticking chronos and I can still hear the Yiddish melodies of the clarinet, soaring and wild.