Why Catholics should know all about time travel

3 mins read
A mysterious clock representing time travel
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“Isn’t time travel against the laws of nature?” Amy asks, as we sit on the edge of the Esther Williams Pool. My wife is not a fan of “Somewhere in Time,” the 1980 time-travel romance starring the late Christopher Reeve as a playwright who becomes obsessed with a woman (played by Jane Seymour) whose photograph he finds in a historical exhibit at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. Her dislike for the film, I suspect, explains why she is attempting to dissuade me from writing this column.

H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” was the inspiration for most of the time-travel stories and novels, TV series and movies of my youth in the ’70s and ’80s, but “Somewhere in Time” was a notable exception. In the film, Christopher Reeve’s character does not travel some 60-plus years back through mechanical means but by convincing himself through hypnosis that the year 1912 still exists in the period-era room in which he is staying at the Grand. The screenplay, based on the novel “Bid Time Return” by Richard Matheson (best known for the 16 “Twilight Zone” episodes produced from his stories), shares a spiritual affinity with “Time and Again,” a 1970 time-travel novel by Jack Finney, the author of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

In both “Somewhere in Time” and “Time and Again,” the means through which the protagonist travels through time is his own imagination. He makes a moment in time present to himself by placing himself imaginatively in that particular moment. And in doing so, he finds that he actually exists in that moment.

Our own time travel

Even if you have never seen “Somewhere in Time” or read “Time and Again,” this should sound familiar to you. Because what Matheson and Finney (and their contemporaries, J.B. Priestley and Philip K. Dick) describe in fiction is something very similar to what we Catholics experience, in fact, whenever we participate in the Mass.

I initially wrote “whenever we attend Mass,” but the verb participate is more correct. When we participate in Mass, when we actively unite ourselves to the liturgical action that the priest performs, we literally become present at the Last Supper and at Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. As I discussed in my last column, these are the “sacred mysteries” that we celebrate. Richard Matheson and Jack Finney and J.B. Priestley and Philip K. Dick, all non-Catholics, were on to something that many cradle Catholics fail to comprehend. What they call “time travel” is a mystery that we experience so routinely that we often forget just how blessed we are to participate in it.

Recognizing what actually happens in the liturgy, and who is made present to us (and we to him), should fill us with awe. That it so often does not is the real reason why a National Eucharistic Revival is needed. Whether or not we actively participate in the action of the liturgy, the priest performs that action, and the Last Supper and Christ’s death on the cross are made present to us. No matter how our thoughts might stray, however poorly we have prepared ourselves for this moment, that is what is happening on the altar.

How we prepare ourselves

When we think of our participation in the liturgy this way — which is, really, the only way we should be thinking of our participation in the Mass — the question of how we prepare ourselves for this awesome event becomes paramount. The protagonists of Matheson’s and Finney’s tales go to great lengths to stimulate their imaginations, to put themselves in the right frame of mind so that they can enter into the moments to which they wish to travel, to encounter people who, whatever their fictional merits, are not the God-Made-Man who died to save us.

Christopher Reeve’s character is warned that the time travel he is about to attempt may so weaken him physically that he could possibly die, yet he still chooses to embark on his journey. We, on the other hand, are promised both a more abundant life on earth and eternal life with God in heaven through our participation in the Eucharist, the central event of our liturgy, yet we spend less time preparing to enter into those sacred mysteries than Amy and I spent getting ready to come down to the Esther Williams Pool. Given the opportunity to hop into H.G. Wells’ time machine and travel back to the evening of Holy Thursday or the afternoon of Good Friday, who among us wouldn’t do so, and spend as much time as it takes to prepare ourselves to celebrate those sacred mysteries?

Scott P. Richert

Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.