If there is one thing that science fiction has taught us, it’s that time travel is hard. Sure, there are the technical difficulties related to the design of flux capacitors, the manipulation of the space time continuum, and the fact that it always seems to require dealing with shady figures and dangerous materials. Even more difficult is figuring out how not to completely ruin the present by your galavanting around in the past. The noble desire to make up for some past mistake, yours or someone else’s, always seems to end up in mind-boggling conundrums of self-annihilation. The simple task of keeping track of whether or not you have destroyed your future self, or, worse, that you need to, is enough to give one a headache—not to mention the physical toll of dealing with whatever crazy materials and processes that got you to the past in the first place. It seems that, as far as dealing with our regrets over the past, time travel has to be considered off the table.
Dealing with our past, even simply from the safety of the present, can be both troubling and engrossing. It is undeniable that our past actions have had and continue to have real consequences, both for us and for others. The collective weight of past actions have built up the habits that form a sort of “second nature,” that first impulse towards acting or reacting to whatever present situation we face. Our previous encounters with others are constitutive of our current relationships and cannot simply be ignored when we meet them again. While these residues of the past could and, ideally, should be tools for greater happiness, often they fall short in at least some respects, and become occasions for frustration and misery. If we are honest with ourselves we can’t help but acknowledge our sinfulness and the myriad mistakes we have made that, at the very least, seem to leave us with bad habits and injured relationships.
This, of course, is part of the great consolation that is the redemption won for us by Jesus Christ, namely, the possibility of true reconciliation with God and the forgiveness of our sins, most especially through the sacraments of confession. God is generous enough not to bind us to our past and offers us a future that depends wholly on a present act of love for Him. This is not to say that our past is somehow erased, but that it need not define our future. We still feel the effects of our past actions, and much of the Christian life is an effort to persist in a present act of love for God. By his grace we go about healing those we have harmed, ourselves first and our neighbors as well.
By the grace of forgiveness, our view of the past changes and the tautological fact that every one of our past actions led us to our present moment becomes an opportunity to see the way that God’s grace has been effective in our lives, even in spite of our sinfulness. The wonder of God’s providence, not only in general, but also in the particularities of our own lives, can be astounding. Nevertheless, we can still be tempted by that sort of wishful thinking that makes the idea of time travel so tantalizing. “If only I had reacted differently here, if only I had resisted there, if only, just that one time, I had cooperated with God’s grace, everything after would have been so much better…”
Perhaps these sorts of reflections are what make a passage from the writings of St. Teresa of Avila that I recently encountered so striking. In an effort to counter the tendency towards unhealthy regret I had, at times, been so bold as to thank God for having offered me graces that I myself ended up resisting or that I failed to put to good use. I was far from confident in the theological grounding of such a prayer. But I could recognize God’s hand reaching out to me and supporting me in those bad times, even as I was choosing sin. I knew that I had fallen short, but it was not for lack of support on God’s part.
As bold as my prayer seems—recognizing in the present God’s mercy in the past—St. Teresa is bolder still. Reflecting on time wasted in her past, she laments,
Oh, how late have my desires been enkindled and how early, Lord, were You seeking and calling that I might be totally taken up with You!
Recognizing the apparent foolishness of the request, she places her trust in God’s power and asks for the lost time back.
Recover, my God, the lost time by giving me grace in the present and future, so that I may appear before You with wedding garments; for if You want to, You can do so.
Time travel—even simply the mental time travel involved in regret—is a risky business. God does not ask of us the impossible task of changing the past, he simply asks for our love in the present. When our minds turn to days gone by and our many imperfections enshrined there, rather than dwell on the past we should first and foremost thank God for his forgiveness. What is more, we can, with St. Teresa, boldly ask for a greater outpouring of His grace to make up for the time we wasted, that we might love him all the more in the present and look forward to a future of eternal happiness with him in heaven.