“Time, now, is systolated—ruched, pleated, tensed, furled, crouched like a cat for the spring, tight-wrapped in grave-clothes like a corpse prepared for resurrection”

If creaturehood implies temporality, and if metronomic time belongs only to the devastation because of its intimacy with death, then there must be a kind of temporality that is not subject to the law of measure, and that therefore does not require death. This would be Edenic and heavenly time, which two need not (and indeed cannot) be identical with one another in every way, but must be so at least in this, that their temporality is not metronomic. How then to characterize Edenic and heavenly time? A good label for this, following a cue from St. Paul, is systolic time. The systole, physiologically speaking, is the regular contraction of the heart as necessary prelude to the driving of blood outward from itself; it is a contraction that prepares the organism for a movement essential to the sustaining of its life. To call time “systolic,” then, is to suggest that it is contracted, gathered, tensed, ready for life-giving action. This sounds mysterious; Paul will help us to understand it better.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, as part of a discussion of what the marriage practices of Christians should be now, since the ascension of Jesus, Paul writes that it is good for Christians to remain as they are with respect to marriage (if married, then married; if not, then not); and that there should also be changes in the way those states of life are lived—those who are married, for example, should live as if they were not. The reason for these changes is that time, now, is systolated (sunestalmenos)—ruched, pleated, tensed, furled, crouched like a cat for the spring, tight-wrapped in grave-clothes like a corpse prepared for resurrection, swaddled like a newborn being carried toward the baptismal font (1 Cor 7:29). The Greek verb here, sustellein, lies at the root of the English “systole,” which is among the reasons for choosing that English equivalent. In the Corinthian correspondence, the participle, when applied to time (kairos in this instance), does not mean that time has grown short, as most English renderings of this word have it. Paul is not grounding the claim that those who have spouses should live hos me, as if they did not, upon the claim that there is not much metronomic time left. That would be an uninteresting claim; it would mean that the principal reason for Christians to live differently is that metronomic time is about to run out, and that we should change because we expect its imminent end. This is the same pattern of reasoning that informs calculation about the dates of the rapture and the Parousia, and that supports throwing caution and money and spouses and jobs and children to the winds once the date and time of the metronome’s final tock is known, or thought to be known. I take Paul, and with him the Christian tradition in its more thoughtful moments, to be suggesting something more interesting.

What might that be? That the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus lie at the heart of time. That time is contracted by those events, pleated and folded around them, gathered by them into a tensely dense possibility. By and in those events, the events of the passion, metronomic duration, the regularly measurable fabric of timespace, is systolated: it has folds or gatherings in it because of its contraction. The principal fold is exactly that provided by the passion: there, time is folded most thickly, pleated most delicately and intricately, contracted—systolated—most tightly; there (then) eternity’s relation to the devastation’s metronomic death hammer is most intense and most transformative; it is that death hammer that drives the nails through the flesh of Jesus and the spear into his side, and it is the hyperdurational events that follow (death, deposition, burial, descent ad inferos, hell’s harrowing, resurrection, ascension) that remove them, and provide the necessary conditions for the casting of Christ’s blood out into the cosmos and into our hearts. The passion is to the fabric of timespace just as the heart’s systole is to our bodies. Time receives its proper order in the passion, and it is an order opposed in every significant way to the time of the metronome.

Paul J. Griffiths

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3 Responses to “Time, now, is systolated—ruched, pleated, tensed, furled, crouched like a cat for the spring, tight-wrapped in grave-clothes like a corpse prepared for resurrection”

  1. SF says:

    Sounds too clever by much more than half. Why not just accept, as most actual Biblical scholars actually do, that Paul was wrong?

    Besides, even “those who have wives [who are to act] as though they had none, and those who mourn [who are to act] as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice [who are to act] as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy [who are to act] as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world [who are to act] as though they had no dealings with” still have to set their alarms in the morning, and make it to meetings on time, and go to bed before it gets too late.

    Does Paul Griffiths *actually* live in the way this commends, or is this just some clever explanation for “other people” who purport to live this way? Or does it not matter either way, and this is just some mealy-mouthed explanation to stave off the prospect that Paul was simply wrong here, as he genuinely appears to have been?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      SF, Griffiths is engaging in theological speculation on an exceptionally difficult, perhaps impenetrable, question: in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, how do we think of the time of the Kingdom? I seriously doubt that he would be fazed even a little if the SBL were to send him a letter informing him that the Apostle Paul really did think that metronomic time was going to come to an end in his lifetime. That would just make Paul a tiny bit less interesting.


  2. danaames says:

    Finally, a quote from Griffiths I can grab… If the Cross is the center of everything, this quote is one way to describe that reality. As someone who works with fabric, sewing many of my own clothes, “ruched, pleated, tensed and furled” make great sense to me, as does the systole of the heartbeat.


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