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Two Kinds of Righteousness

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

It is made clear in every epistle that God’s Spirit works real transformation within a believer. The Apostle Paul generally ties that process directly to the sacraments. I don’t know of a protestant that disputes the point. Since, however, protestant theology is continually expressed through its historical conflicts, it often seeks to emphasize that the transformation is to be understood entirely in the optic of gift–Mary is the perfect example–and not human effort.

On the other hand, the epistles are also full of exhortation to live out the transformation that is effected upon us. This indeed does take human effort, and lots of it, like beating one’s body to make it one’s slave. Lutheranism as I have been taught it would explain these exhortations within the rubric of “two kinds of righteousness”. Its tagline goes “God doesn’t need my good works but my neighbor does.” The effort one puts into the Christian life contributes to one’s horizontal righteousness. This action flows from the vertical righteousness that is pure gift apart from any effort of my own. The horizontal needs to reflect the vertical but the two must not be confused.

The bone that could be picked with pietists (that is, much of popular evangelicalism) is that that latter encourages an examination of horizontal righteousness as proof and validation of the vertical. This is a confusion, indeed, the very definition of legalism, since horizontal righteousness is a always a one-way street, pure gift, Christ’s merit alone, etc.

It is true that grace changes our very being, filling us in Christ. Nowhere is this expressed more clearly than Colossians. But even in Colossians there is that phrase “you have died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God”. It is this hiddeness that I think needs to be understood. The ontological transformation that is the work of grace is a hidden one. It is not relegated to the eschaton, but perhaps its revelation is. Not that its revelation is entirely delayed until the echaton, but that we certainly will not reveal it by our efforts. We can only seek to live (and indeed are called to live) ever more in accordance to it as the Spirit reveals its truth when, where and how he sees fit in his inscrutable plan.

I think this view is very consistent with Paul’s presentation in the epistles. He sets up the spiritual reality of our transformation in Christ by grace in stark contrast to our current sinful behavior so as to motivate us to live more consistently with the hidden reality. The horizontal righteousness is motivated by the vertical. The transformation of our being happens in the former and flows out to effect the latter. We have faith that the Spirit works through all things, including and especially the efforts of God’s people to live out their salvation. But he does so in his inscrutable timing and way. What we really want to avoid is the navel-gazing, that interminable search for evidence, proof, validation of vertical righteousness in any place other than the sacraments. Because any such search will lead, and historically always has led, to legalism and guilt. And I think that is the answer to why so much of pietism eventually became liberalism. The grandchildren of legalist are anything but.

Scripture’s Two Senses and my Granddaughter

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

A contribution by Paul Szobody

The other day I encountered a striking, living illustration of the Church’s ancient conviction that the Scriptures possess essentially two senses—literal and spiritual—and that both are real and indivisible, both divinely intended.

In God’s book, more than one sense in a text is not non-sense. To say that it is (as one recent evangelical scholar did) reveals that our hermeneutic is too influenced by human rationalism rather than the mystery of divine superintendence over Scripture’s composition and intended meaning. A mere cursory reading of the Gospels and Epistles confirms that the traditional hermeneutic of two senses in one and the same text was already operative in the apostolic mentality.

My four-year-old granddaughter Selma was playing in the sandbox with water. She made some mud balls and was carrying them over to a concrete ledge which, presumably in her mind, was her oven. As she passed me by, I asked her: “So you’re making mud balls?” “No, grandpa, these are cookies!” she retorted with all seriousness, and then added, “Would you like some?” Certainly this was not the place or time for rational disputations. “Yes” I said, and then I leaned over and pretended to eat and enjoy scrumptious cookies. She was pleased.

Then later, after I privately related to my daughter-in-law (Selma’s mother) the story, she asked Selma: “what were you doing in the sandbox?” “Making mud balls” Selma replied to her mother, still in the same sincere tone.

Yes, on one level, a very conscious level, Selma knew all along she had literally, historically and substantially made mud balls. This was the essential meaning of her act as reported to her mother. That information (evidently, in Selma’s mind) was the essential information to communicate to her mother. But her assertion to me: “No grandpa, they’re cookies!” was no less real in her mind, no less intended. In fact, it was the teleological fullness of her act: to figure, to convey to the imagination, cookies. Two modes of consciousness, two intentions, in one act, an act interpreted in two different fashions to two different people in two different situations and relations to her.

This is exactly the Church’s traditional understanding of the two senses of Scripture, the literal (historical-grammatical) and the spiritual (figural and Christic). In the first, one encounters raw empirical literary and historical data. In the second, the God who hides himself in Scripture unveils himself to the reader in contours figuring the Person and work of Christ (we will leave off, for this brief reflection, the discussion of the expansion of the spiritual meaning into the medieval three senses). The situation of the reader, his/her spiritual condition and intentions, determine how things are read and perceived. It’s the letter and spirit dichotomy. Likewise on the author’s side: In the same creative act, Selma wanted to say one thing to Grandpa, and another later to her mother. But alas: both senses are intended, both true, both legitimate interpretations; yet, how the intention and interpretation gets worked out in each situation remains under the sovereignty of the creator, whether that person creates mud balls, cookies or canonical texts.

Bread and Wine, Because Faith Comes by Seeing

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

Why does God choose to put his Gospel into the physical form of the sacraments? Because it is in the very nature of faith to attach to what is not only heard but also seen. Pope Francis explains this dynamic in his recent encyclical Lumen Fidei:

30. The bond between seeing and hearing in faith-knowledge is most clearly evident in John’s Gospel. For the Fourth Gospel, to believe is both to hear and to see. Faith’s hearing emerges as a form of knowing proper to love: it is a personal hearing, one which recognizes the voice of the Good Shepherd (cf. Jn 10:3-5); it is a hearing which calls for discipleship, as was the case with the first disciples: “Hearing him say these things, they followed Jesus” (Jn 1:37). But faith is also tied to sight. Seeing the signs which Jesus worked leads at times to faith, as in the case of the Jews who, following the raising of Lazarus, “having seen what he did, believed in him” (Jn 11:45). At other times, faith itself leads to deeper vision: “If you believe, you will see the glory of God” (Jn 11:40). In the end, belief and sight intersect: “Whoever believes in me believes in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me” (Jn 12:44-45). Joined to hearing, seeing then becomes a form of following Christ, and faith appears as a process of gazing, in which our eyes grow accustomed to peering into the depths. Easter morning thus passes from John who, standing in the early morning darkness before the empty tomb, “saw and believed” (Jn 20:8), to Mary Magdalene who, after seeing Jesus (cf. Jn 20:14) and wanting to cling to him, is asked to contemplate him as he ascends to the Father, and finally to her full confession before the disciples: “I have seen the Lord!” (Jn 20:18).

How does one attain this synthesis between hearing and seeing? It becomes possible through the person of Christ himself, who can be seen and heard. He is the Word made flesh, whose glory we have seen (cf. Jn 1:14). The light of faith is the light of a countenance in which the Father is seen. In the Fourth Gospel, the truth which faith attains is the revelation of the Father in the Son, in his flesh and in his earthly deeds, a truth which can be defined as the “light-filled life” of Jesus.[24] This means that faith-knowledge does not direct our gaze to a purely inward truth. The truth which faith discloses to us is a truth centred on an encounter with Christ, on the contemplation of his life and on the awareness of his presence. Saint Thomas Aquinas speaks of the Apostles’ oculata fides — a faith which sees! — in the presence of the body of the Risen Lord.[25] With their own eyes they saw the risen Jesus and they believed; in a word, they were able to peer into the depths of what they were seeing and to confess their faith in the Son of God, seated at the right hand of the Father.

31. It was only in this way, by taking flesh, by sharing our humanity, that the knowledge proper to love could come to full fruition. For the light of love is born when our hearts are touched and we open ourselves to the interior presence of the beloved, who enables us to recognize his mystery. Thus we can understand why, together with hearing and seeing, Saint John can speak of faith as touch, as he says in his First Letter: “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 Jn 1:1). By his taking flesh and coming among us, Jesus has touched us, and through the sacraments he continues to touch us even today; transforming our hearts, he unceasingly enables us to acknowledge and acclaim him as the Son of God. In faith, we can touch him and receive the power of his grace. Saint Augustine, commenting on the account of the woman suffering from haemorrhages who touched Jesus and was cured (cf. Lk 8:45-46), says: “To touch him with our hearts: that is what it means to believe”.[26] The crowd presses in on Jesus, but they do not reach him with the personal touch of faith, which apprehends the mystery that he is the Son who reveals the Father. Only when we are configured to Jesus do we receive the eyes needed to see him.

The Torah and the Sermon on the Mount

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

Sometimes there is a theological issue on my mind that is more a matter of perspective than proposition. Often such an issue is particularly paradoxical–perhaps to the point of contradiction. But I don’t think so. That makes it hard to express and defend succinctly. So I’ll try this.

Was he a Jew so I would be one too,
A Torah-loving man for human good
As spoke he on the Mount in Sermon true?
His life was also sermon, good as would
Bestow a God of love who bore his law–
Which was no law but kind command!
He drew us all from where in fear and awe
We’d froze afraid to love, afraid to stand
Before a God who’s good; afraid to hope
That we, not Jews, but “gentile sinners” might
Be known by God like Abraham and Job,
Like Aaron in the temple day and night.
Messiah on the Mountain opened once
His mouth and Torah gave the rest of us.

On the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

I was reading the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy today. Couple of quotes I thought I would reflect upon:

[…]history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth.

Yes, the sticking point, though, is in which parts of the Bible are considered to be history, metaphor, etc.

Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: since, for instance, non-chronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it.

Indeed, it is helpful to point out how ancient writers’ understanding of the role and nature of their work differs from modern literary assumptions. The one area this document does not address is how the ancient writers’ culture viewed the nature and composition of history itself.

Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed.

In this statement the entire doctument becomes relative to future insights concerning what might be “measured focus of truth” at which a particular author of a particular passage aimed. I am thinking particularly of stories such as the Creation, the Flood, and Jonah.

In short, it would be helpful to Christian unity to realize that the principles on which the conservative Evangelical camp bases its position on inerrency, does not necessarily exclude opposing positions. As the Rabbi says: “As long as the Book is open, all questions are permitted.”

Principles for Christ’s Mission

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

A few principles drawn from Lesslie Newbigin’s article “Mission in Christ’s Way”.

– The mission is God’s and it has been the same from the beginning of creation.

– The mission is to draw all people into God’s kingdom

– God’s kingdom = Jesus Christ, his words and his actions, past, present and future.

– The mission is grown and sustained by the Holy Spirit alone.

– Our participation in God’s mission is a gift of his grace.

– The mission is an announcement in power, through word and deed, of the facts of God’s kingdom.

– Words without deeds are empty; deeds without words are dumb.

– The method for participating in the mission is best illustrated by Jesus’ hands and side: John 20:20-23 “…he showed them his hands and his side. […] Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.””

Submission in the “Theology of the Body”

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

The following is an excerpt from a summary Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” found in pdf form here:

“[Eph 5:22-24] is often viewed with suspicion by
women since it tells wives to be submissive to their
husbands. But the first line of the passage, which tells both
spouses to “be subject to one another out of reverence for
Christ” is often overlooked. The following lines are
devoted to explaining how that mutual submission is lived
in marriage. John Paul II makes it very clear that the wife’s
“being subject” to the husband does not mean that she is
dominated by him. It might even be argued that the
husband’s task is harder. He is the one who is commanded
to die for his wife as Christ died for the Church.
“The mutual relations of husband and wife should flow
from their common relationship with Christ.” (TOB Aug. 11,
1982) p. 309
“Love excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife
might become a servant or a slave of the husband, an object
of unilateral domination. Love makes the husband
simultaneously subject to the wife, thereby subject to the
Lord himself, just as the wife to the husband… It is certain
that when the husband and wife are subject to one another
‘out of re v e rence for Christ’, a just balance will be
established, such as to correspond to their Christian
vocation in the mystery of Christ.” (TOB August 11, 1982) p. 310
“Christ manifests the love with which he has loved her [the
Church] by giving himself for her. That love is an image
and above all a model of the love which the husband
should show to his wife in marriage, when the two are
subject to each other ‘out of reverence for Christ.’” (TOB Aug.
25, 1982) p. 316
“The husband is above all, he who loves and the wife, on the
other hand is she who is loved. One could even hazard the
idea that the wife’s submission to her husband, understood
in the context of the entire passage of Ephesians, signifies
above all the “experiencing of love.” This is all the more so
since this submission is related to the image of the
submission of the Church to Christ, which certainly consists
in experiencing his love.” ( TOB Sept. 1, 1982) p. 320”

Introductory thoughts on Pneumatology

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

It’s a fancy word and it means the study of the spirit, that is, the Spirit of God. The following thoughts are a synthesis from three sources: Ephraim Radner’s book “The End of the Church”, Jürgen Moltmann’s book “A Theology of Hope” and a course on pneumatology by André Birmelé at the University of Strasbourg.

I love my wife. There’s me, there’s her, and then there’s this thing called our relationship. It’s really more than just me plus her; it is life itself. In fact, you could define life as the total of our relationships. Who am I? As soon as I state my name I am referring to the parents I come from, if mention that I am a father, husband, brother, worker, friend, or any other descriptor, I am referring to relationships. At its most basic, you can’t be in existence without an organic relationship to atleast two people. You are your relationships.

So let’s skip all the history of theological debates about the Trinity and go with this analogy: God exists, he speaks, and he has a relationship with his Word. This is the Trinity: the Father, his Word that is spoken into human existence, and the love between them, their relationship, which is the Holy Spirit. What moves God, what qualifies him, the love that is him, that is the Holy Spirit. As the care, the provision, and the intimacy that I show my wife is the action of our relationship, so the love of God and his works of love toward himself and us in his Son is the work of the Spirit.

We will look at the Holy Spirit from two perspectives: 1, what he does throughout history, and 2, what he does individually. We can sum up both with the following statement: The Holy Spirit moves Christ and his people through time by God’s promises and his acts of loving faithfulness.

It would be difficult to speak of the Holy Spirit without speaking of Old Testament prophecy. It’s curious, actually, that when Israel settled down from nomadic life into the sedentary, temple-centric life of Palestine, they didn’t adopt the sedentary Gods of their neighbors (well, ok, I guess a large number of them did). A nomad god is very different from a sedentary god in ancient Near Eastern religion. The nomad god is a warrior, himself on the move. A sedentary god is generally “epiphanic”, that is, he “appears” at certain times and certain places, giving meaning to geographic worship places, and marking the rhythm of agricultural seasons. Whereas Israel’s God never really settled down. He did sort of; they built him a temple anyway, but he wasn’t stuck there. As Solomon prayed in the dedication of the temple: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (I Kings 8:27). He goes on in his prayer to show that the temple was not for God’s benefit, but for the people’s, so that they could have a place to come and be forgiven of their sins. God himself was always moving forward, forward through time. He did this through his prophetic promises.

The classic way to introduce a prophet’s message in the Old Testament is to say that the Spirit of God came upon him. Prophecy is indisputable the work of the Holy Spirit. But let’s get it out of our heads that prophecy is somehow future-telling. That’s magic, and that is not what prophecy is. Prophecy declares God’s promise, and interprets the times in function of God’s promises. It is by the promise and fulfillment of promise that the Spirit of God moved his people through time, took them from being physical nomads, and turned them into spiritual ones. But they weren’t wandering; they were walking straight toward a sure promise. They did this by obeying the law, a law summed up by the command “You shall love the Lord your God and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is where the macro work of the Spirit is one and the same as the micro work of the Spirit: God’s Hesed, or his covenant, loving faithfulness. The job of prophecy was to connect the two, thus moving God’s people forward in love for him and for one another.

The interesting thing about God’s promises is that they developed. To Abraham, God would multiply him and make him a “blessing to all nations”. To Israel (the “multiplied Abraham”) he would deliver them and give them a promised land. Once in that land he would give them a king. When Israel got her king God promised to make his throne last forever in righteousness. When the descendents of David failed, the prophets played a pivotal role in developing “messianism”, or the understanding that the Davidic promise was to be taken up by a future “anointed one”, possibly even two of them (one high priest and one king). With the coming of Jesus the Messiah, the promise of God is to be with his people in the present and also to create a kingdom of righteousness and peace forever in a new creation for the future. God’s Spirit interprets himself as his new promises interpret the previous ones and reshape them and enlarge them for the future, always along the lines of God’s loving, covenant faithfulness to his people. So God’s people live his past promises in the present because they are their hope for the future (this is why pneumatology is inseparable from eschatology.) And that hope is always being expanded: both more real for the present and greater for the future. Because this was the work of prophecy/revelation, it is the work of the Spirit.

The revelation of God’s Word incarnate, Jesus the Messiah, continues this process of fulfillment/repromising, but also radically reoriented the promises of God towards eternal life, the kingdom of God being not a physical one, but one that dwells in the hearts of his people. He is Immanuel, God-With-Us. He physically and personally fulfilled God’s promises to Israel, but he did it in such a way that he formulated a greater promise: that God’s Spirit should be in the hearts of his people and keep them until the new creation. The Holy Spirit is God’s life, and the gift of life to his people. As Paul states to the Galatians: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). He thus ties both the historical salvation of God’s people and the life of love to which the people are call to the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ.

This may seem problematic for students of church history who know that the life of God’s people has been marked by anything but the observable fruit of that same Spirit. When we come up against this and similar quandries in Christian theology it is always instructive to look to the life of Him after whom the theology is named. It was by the Spirit that Jesus accomplished his ministry (Matthew 12:28). It was by that same Spirit that he was brought to give his life on the cross and certainly by that Spirit that he was raised (Romans 1:4). As Jesus cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” this too was the work of the Holy Spirit. So this is the grace of God: that even our failures to act as the body of Christ, in love for one another, are taken, by the Spirit, and nailed to the cross with all of our other sins. In other words, the division of the God’s people in history are also part of the sufferings of Jesus on the cross—a work of the Spirit for our salvation. It is not insignificant that Jesus said “this is my body” over bread that was broken so that his people, who take that bread and become his body, are not condemned therein for their brokenness. While the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of unity (Ephesians 4:3), neither is its antithesis outside the bounds of his work. For in Christ’s work on the cross the Spirit showed that even brokenness—division—is providentially directed for a “cruciform” work in the church. It is a breaking, yes, because of sin, but providentially, also for life.

The implications for this are far too broad for the present essay. I would only point in a few directions. As Christ was “deadened” to the sense of his father’s presence, so too the church in her divisions, whether in gifts of prophecy, repentance, tongues, miracles, love, hospitality, anointed preaching, or any other demonstration of the Spirit; the senses have been deadened in the church’s divisions. But let us remember, this is not outside of Christ’s very experience. Nor is it, then, without redemptive purpose. As the Spirit spoke through isolated prophets when Israel was torn in two, scattered and deported, enslaved and oppressed, so he speaks and makes himself evident as he wills. God’s people are called to be faithful and wait, for we know that his promises are fulfilled. For his Spirit does not abandon his work, drawing his people ever onward toward the new creation.

Nor does the church’s experience of “deadening” of its senses to the work of the Spirit hinder the Spirit from working as he always does on the individual level, both for quickening and for deadening. For the Spirit makes every person alive when they are united to Christ through faith (Romans 8:9). As Israel lived the future promises in the present through obedience to the law, Christians also live God’s promises in the present, but not through the law. Because what we are promised is Christ, and the life of his Spirit, so we are given Christ for the present. Thus baptism into Christ is baptism into his Spirit (Mark 1:8). Jesus gives us himself because his Spirit is life. While scripture (and particularly the book of Acts) speaks of baptism of the Holy Spirit, often accompanied with tongues, it would be misinformed to separate this from Jesus’ baptism that he instituted. For Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 links the two: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” We receive God’s Spirit through baptism into Christ because it is the Spirit who keeps God’s people until they shall be with Christ forever, as Jesus said in his “high priestly prayer”: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13). The Spirit brings the goods (truth, eternal life, the fruit of the Spirit, a relationship with God) that are ours in Christ, goods which sharpen our desire to live in the hope of the life to come.

Thus the Spirit draws the individual into the cosmic plan of God’s promise and fulfillment by giving Jesus to that individual, the very promised plan himself. Therefore that person joins a communion that is primarily the love that God shares in himself, and secondarily, the love that he creates for his people to share. This doesn’t make life a cake-walk; the love of God, while present, is still something promised and looked forward to. In the apparent contradiction between the love of God that is given to us and the non-love that is experienced in the world, we come back to the point made when dealing with division in the church: the cross of Jesus assumes in itself the contradiction, thus making us and our sin even the tools of the Holy Spirit for the experience of that cross and the means of redemption and life through repentance. Indeed, his is the Spirit who “groans” (Romans 8:26). In this way each of us is carried ever onward by that Comforter who tirelessly extends to us his sure promise of life.

I conclude with the articles on the Holy Spirit from the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicea-Constantinople Creed, with punctuation added to clarify the relationship between the Holy Spirit and his work:

Apostles’ Creed:
“I believe in the Holy Spirit:
the holy Christian church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.”

And from the Nicean Creed:
“And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost:
the Lord and Giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father,
who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified,
who spoke by the prophets.

How to Speak

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

“Eloquence is an art of saying things in such a way—(1) that those to whom we speak may listen to them without pain and with pleasure; (2) that they feel themselves interested, so that self-love leads them more willingly to reflection upon it.
It consists, then, in a correspondence which we seek to establish between the head and the heart of those to whom we speak on the one hand, and, on the other, between the thoughts and the expressions which we employ. This assumes that we have studied well the heart of man so as to know all its powers, and then to find the just proportions of the discourse which we wish to adapt to them. We must put ourselves in the place of those who are to hear us, and make trial on our own heart of the turn which we give to our discourse in order to see whether one is made for the other, and whether we can assure ourselves that the hearer will be, as it were, forced to surrender. We ought to restrict ourselves, so far as possible, to the simple and natural, and not to magnify that which is little, or belittle that which is great. It is not enough that a thing be beautiful; it must be suitable to the subject, and there must be in it nothing of excess or defect.”

— Pascal Pensées

Wisdom from “The Little Prince”

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“Good morning,” said the little prince.

“Good morning,” said the merchant.

This was a merchant who sold pills that had been invented to quench thirst. You need only swallow one pill a week, and you would feel no need of anything to drink.

“Why are you selling those?” asked the little prince.

“Because they save a tremendous amount of time,” said the merchant. “Computations have been made by experts. With these pills, you save fifty-three minutes in every week.”

“And what do I do with those fifty-three minutes?”

“Anything you like…”

“As for me,” said the little prince to himself, “if I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water.”

-Saint Exupery, “The Little Prince”, Chapter 23