Time and “The Oblate’s Confession”

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Sunday’s readings included an interesting line from the Gospel of St. John, “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.” (John 1: 39) Father probably wouldn’t approve of the way my mind drifted after that. I kept wondering what were the original words that someone had translated into the modern concept of “four o’clock.” Whatever they were, I seriously doubt the number “four” figured anywhere among them. And that, in turn, got me thinking about time itself.

If anyone doubts Einstein’s claim that time is relative, let him consult history … and fairly recent history at that. Until well into the first part of the twentieth century, localities across America were free to set their clocks any way they chose. And they did. Noon in one town might be 1:15 in a town not far away.

Clocks themselves, of course, are a fairly recent innovation. The monks in The Oblate’s Confession wouldn’t have had one. Someone there, perhaps the prior, would have darted a cautious glance at the sun, made a guess as to its proximity to the meridian, and apportioned the hours of Matins, Prime, Terce, etc. accordingly. There is, I think, something appealing about a place and time that measured time—however inaccurately—by the rhythms of season and sun.

Still it is, I suppose, in the nature of our species that we should try to codify time, make it dance to our tune. But the way people have gone about this over the course of history—and the significance they have accorded the result—often tells us more about their culture and its notions of reality than it does time itself. Surely there is no more telling difference between Anglo and Gallic cultures, for instance, than the fact that we call the timepiece we wear upon our wrists a “watch,” and the French call it a “montre.” So English culture watches time while the French show it.

The monks in The Oblate’s Confession followed an unvarying schedule of daily hours that caused them, over the course of a day, to move regularly back and forth between the two poles of their existence: ora et labora. In this way, even today, monks seek to transform the profane—their daily work schedule—into something holy, periods of prayer alternating with periods of work to create a sort of comforting, complementary rhythm in their lives.

I saw my first book of hours years ago in an exhibit at Baltimore’s Walter’s Art Museum. A product of the Middle Ages, books of hours were designed to give laymen the chance to follow a holy round similar to that followed by monks and nuns. The vellum pages of these books were richly illustrated with pictures showing the everyday activities of everyday people: farmers and fishermen, hunters and housewives, shepherds and swineherds. Finding these books and the illustrations they contained was as important a discovery in my attempt to understand the Iron Age society I wished to depict in The Oblate’s Confession as my discovery of the Bede. I bought a copy of the exhibit’s catalogue and spent countless evenings poring over its pages, imagining the possibilities. For me, the title of that catalogue says it all, capturing, as it does, the intent of the culture that produced books of hours. It is called Time Sanctified.

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