“No need to rush,” my wife assured me as we bumped over ruts and small branches strewn along the dirt roadway that leads through the woods to the main road nearly a mile from our house. “We’ve got plenty of time.” It was early morning and we were headed for church. A wind storm the night before had brought down all sorts of debris, the roadway was passable but barely, and we were running late. “Plenty of time,” I mumbled. “I don’t think so….”

“How did it go today,” she asked with a bright smile as I came in the kitchen door. “Fine,” I replied. “Only I wasted nearly half an hour waiting for the bridge to open, then more time standing in line at the DMV.” It seemed like a petty complaint, but I really don’t like to waste time. It makes me feel guilty.

Not enough time. Don’t want to waste time. In this workaholic society we live in, time seems more valuable than money. We never have enough of it, yet when we do, we tend—in our own minds, at any rate—to waste it. Whose time is it, anyway? Why do I so often feel pressured by a lack of it, or annoyed at myself when I feel I’ve squandered, abused or otherwise misused it?

Thinking about it, I realize I can’t answer those questions until I come to terms with a more basic one. What in fact is “time”? Even the encyclopedia refers to it as a “mystery.” The dictionary doesn’t help much, because it begins by defining it as “a period….” But a “period” implies the passage of time, so the definition is circular. The one point that stands out is that time involves change. An action or a process can exist only because it involves extension through time: extension that includes change from one state or condition to another. That change, however, can occur only within a certain framework that we call space. This is why physicists speak of time as a fourth dimension, complementary to the spatial dimensions of height, length and depth. For change to occur within those spatial dimensions, it requires time. Time, then, is the measure of changing space: space in the external world, but also space within ourselves.

I’m reminded of a sketch that used to hang in the St. Vladimir’s Seminary bookstore. It consisted of a single panel depicting a totally frustrated and bemused Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes), making a point with clenched fists. The caption was something like this: “God put me on this earth to accomplish a few things. Right now I’m so far behind, I’ll never die!”

God puts us here for a purpose. He calls us to accomplish a few things, to change the space in which we live, and to do so in specific ways. Some of that change involves other people or things exterior to ourselves. Much of it involves ourselves directly, our interior life that St. Paul calls “the inner man.” Time is the prerequisite for change I make within myself. Or to be more precise, time is the instrument given me by God, which allows Him—with my cooperation—to work those changes within me. That takes time, possibly a lifetime. And right now, I’m so far behind I’m afraid to die.

There’s a simple but important moral to all this. Time is a gift, granted by God in order for us to fulfill His purpose, to accomplish the few things He puts us here for. Those few things invariably involve change. And that change concerns above all our inner space.

So rather than risk life and limb to arrive somewhere on time, or curse the delays that seem to mean such waste, maybe, by God’s grace, I can come to the point where I treasure time as an opportunity rather than a constraint. Maybe I can come to realize that the time I waste, like the time I covet, is not mine at all, but His.