The Commander’s Humility

As he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; be it done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.    (Matthew 8:5-13)

St John Chrysostom comments on the Gospel lesson:

What did the centurion say? ‘Lord, I am not worthy that you come under my roof.’ The pain of his servant’s sickness and the demands made by illness in his own house did not make the centurion forget his godly disposition. Even in the midst of disaster, he recognized the superiority of the Master. This is why he said: “Only say the word and my servant will be healed. For I, too, have soldiers subject to me; and I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this, ‘ and he does it.” Do you see that the words, ‘Do this’ are the words of command spoken by a master to his servant?” (ON THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE NATURE OF GOD, p 277)

The Gospel lesson certainly focuses on the humility of the military commander.  Perhaps we could look at it and say unlike Americans who rely on exceptionalism, this Centurion laid aside his exceptional position and humbled himself in approaching Christ.  He did not demand or threaten,  He did not assume himself worthy of Christ’s help.  He knew he approached Christ as an ‘outsider’, he knew he had no right to claim anything.  He was seeking the mercy and grace of God, not demanding his rights.  He recognizes that Christ represents a power superior to his own – even though he approaches Christ as a commander in the Roman army which had conquered Israel.  He shows us what we need in prayer: humility.

July 4th and Freedom

On July 5, 1852, as the United States was celebrating its 76th birthday, Frederick Douglas was asked to give a speech in honor of Independence Day.  Douglas was an escaped slave who worked to abolish this human evil of enslaving people.  Slavery was still the norm in the free and independent United States of his time.  Douglas in his speech, What to the slave is the Fourth of July? , points out the inconsistinces in America: we are celebrating 76 years of freedom but slavery is still part of that entire history and of our freedom loving nation.  Slaves have no share in freedom and independence.  His speech is long, but worth reading to get a sense of the anguish slavery causes and also to get a sense of the historical struggle of Blacks in America to share in the freedom and prosperity of our country.  As we celebrate the 244th birthday of our nation, it is good to consider his words, spoken before the Civil War and to think about how we can continue to work for human rights and freedom in the 21st Century.  Below are a few excerpts from his speech.

To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day.

Douglas knew many in his audience disapproved of slavery, and yet they remained silent in the face of laws which required them to deny runaway slaves their freedom by forcing them back into slavery.  He knew many people benefited and prospered by the internal slave trade in the country – not just the slavers and slave owners, but politicians, police and clergy who defended slavery as well as many business people.

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

Douglas holds the Founding Fathers in deep respect, though he rightly points out that in tolerating slavery they did not live up to the ideals of human equality which they claimed justified their war of Independence from England.   I think of particular importance for us today is what Douglas says next, for he sees in the Founding Fathers that they loved our nation more than their private interests.  This is a much needed spirit today as we face the covid pandemic.  Are we willing to sacrfice our private interests for the good of the nation?  Douglas admits this is a rare virtue – and it seems even more uncommon today than when he lived.  Now, many Americans seem to uphold their private interests as more important than that of others or of our nation.  It isn’t about freedom but rather is about the selfish and self-centered individualism which refuses to love others.

They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited, it ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his country, is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.

Douglas is rightfully very criticial of American Christian churches and denominations for their tolerance of slavery.  He reminds us that Christ Himself spoke of God’s Judgment Day based not on punishing all manners of sin, but purely based on our willingness to help the poor and needy (See Matthew 25:31-46).  Douglas minces no words here, and all believers need to consider his words – do we obey Christ or not?

The fact that the church of our country, (with fractional exceptions), does not esteem “the Fugitive Slave Law” as a declaration of war against religious liberty, implies that that church regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love and good will towards man. It esteems sacrifice above mercy; psalm-singing above right doing; solemn meetings above practical righteousness. A worship that can be conducted by persons who refuse to give shelter to the houseless, to give bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, and who enjoin obedience to a law forbidding these acts of mercy, is a curse, not a blessing to mankind. The Bible addresses all such persons as “scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, who pay tithe of  mintanise, and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith.”

You profess to believe “that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,” and hath commanded all men, everywhere to love one another; yet you notoriously hate, (and glory in your hatred), all men whose skins are not colored like your own. You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you “hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.

Fellow-citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever!


Douglas prophetically could see that slavery would have a continuing negative effect on the American experiment in freedom, on the moral character of Americans, on American prosperity and progress.  All things we can note today as we continue to struggle with racism, which is “a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic.”  We certainly feel that venom every time there is a racial crime or racial unrest in America.  We are being bitten by that “hideous monster” we were so reluctant to be rid of – slavery based on race.  It is a monster we have yet to crush.

God’s Mercy

For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.  For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy.  For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.  (Romans 11:29-32)


St Paul is making an interesting argument about sinful disobedience to God’s commandments and God’s own mercy in His judgment.  But first St Paul reminds us that God’s gifts and calling are irrevocable.  God will not take back His call – neither to the Jews in the Old Testament nor to all humans in the New Testament.   As we pray at the Third Hour:

You who at every season and every hour, in Heaven and on earth art worshiped and glorified, O Christ God; long-suffering, merciful and compassionate; Who loves the just and shows mercy upon the sinner; Who calls all to salvation through the promise of blessings to come. O Lord, in this hour receive our supplications, and direct our lives according to Your commandments. Sanctify our souls. Purify our bodies. Correct our minds; cleanse our thoughts; and deliver us from all tribulations, evil, and distress. Surround us with Your holy angels, that guided and guarded by them, we may attain to the unity of the faith, and to the knowledge of Your unapproachable glory. For You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.


God calls all to salvation.  This is irrevocable.  Yet despite the steadfast love of God and God’s unchanging nature, humans (as is the nature of all of created things) do change.  Israel failed to remain obedient to God’s promises.  This opened the door for God to offer salvation to non-Jews who at one time themselves were thought by Jews as being disobedient.  Israel’s disobedience led to God showing mercy to Gentiles.  Now, St Paul hopes that Israel, seeing God’s mercy to the disobedient Gentiles, will also turn back to God and receive God’s mercy.  God was not reacting against the disobedience of Jews and Gentiles, but rather used our disobedient sinfulness to demonstrate God’s own mercy.  Nothing, including human sinful disobedience changes the will of God our Savior “who desires all humans to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3).  God’s reaction to our sinful disobedience is to show mercy to us, forgiving us, so that all can be saved.  Archimandrite Aimilianos muses:

Is it possible for God not to be compassionate? Is it possible for Him not to show mercy? He is compassion itself, mercy itself. He himself wants mercy, and not sacrifice (Mt 9:13). If God should somehow forget or refuse to show mercy, it would be a denial of His own being, of His own nature; it means He would enter into contradiction with Himself, and this cannot be. Neither can His anger seal up the fountain of His compassion. If wrath were to triumph over love, it would mean that God has rejected His own Self, or that He does not exist, or that He is dead. But this is impossible. The only alternative is that God will remember us; He will send down on us His compassion; He will respond to our desire. What desire is this? To see Him, to have Him for our own. God will grant us the theophany, the vision of Himself, that we long for, and with this we arrive at the second. (PSALMS AND THE LIFE OF FAITH, p 335)

42177591130_2aaca87ebd_wWe constantly pray, “Lord, have mercy!” in our church services.  We do this, not because God is an evil, capricious ogre, who is unpredictable and so all we can do is woefully and wretchedly beg mercy while fearing the worst.  Rather, the truth is we beg God’s mercy because God is love and mercy.  We are constantly asking God to be the Lord, to act according to His own nature and not react to our sinful failures.  To be honest, in prayer we are directing God – we are telling God what we need and want from the Lord.  Praying “Lord, have mercy!” is an act of faith on our part.  We believe God is merciful and full of loving kindness.  We in faith remind God to act toward us according to God’s own nature and to overlook our sins. We do this because:

Mercy triumphs over judgment

(James 2:13)

Bless the Lord, O My Soul


Blessed are you in the firmament of heaven,
and to be sung and glorified forever.


“Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.


Bless the Lord, you heavens;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.


Bless the Lord, you angels of the Lord;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.


Bless the Lord, all you waters above the heavens;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.


Bless the Lord, all you powers of the Lord;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.


Bless the Lord, sun and moon;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

NASA Photo

Bless the Lord, stars of heaven;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

(Daniel 3:55-63; LXX)

Spiritual Joy


Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. …  my tongue will rejoice at your righteousness. (Psalm 51:8-12, 14)

Psalm 51 is Orthodoxy’s great Psalm of repentance.  Usually, when we think about heartfelt penance, what we experience are sorrow, guilt, tears, grief, regret, remorse, self-condemnation, compunction, contrition and the like.  While these are appropriate internal reactions to our own faults and failures, Psalm 51 also connects joy to the Christian who repents.  What do we ask from God when we repent and pray Psalm 51?’

4550013305_a7e7cfe964_nThat God will fill us with joy and gladness.  That if we have suffered injury (even bodily) as a consequence of our own bad actions, that even these injuries will be part of our rejoicing.  We ask God to restore in us the joy of His salvation.  Joy and rejoicing are a normal part of the Christian life.  They are not opposed to repentance.  Based on Psalm 51, God does not intend for us perpetually to feel guilty, regretful and remorseful.  God calls us to repentance, but it is a call to rejoice in the Lord.   As St Paul writes:  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).   St Peter says:  “… rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy” (1 Peter 1:8).   In the Bible, the word “rejoice” occurs three times more often than the word “repent.”  But you wouldn’t know that from the piety often taught in Orthodoxy.

Mother Raphaela commenting on the monastic vocation points out:  “While almost anyone can appear to be joyful, contented and loving when things are going their way, the monastic seeks the freedom to be joyful, contented and loving even when things are terrible” (LIVING IN CHRIST, p 64).  Her thought applies to all Christians.  St Paul told us to rejoice always – not just in good times but in all times!  Mother Raphaela points out the key to this thought – we are seeking the freedom to be happy at all times.  In other words, instead of simply reacting to whatever situation we are in, we can choose to maintain happiness in any circumstance, even when things are terrible.  We actually can gain freedom from our internal emotions, prejudices, fears, hates, etc.   This isn’t a matter of living in denial about how bad things are or pretending that things are good when they are not.  Rather it is a matter of choosing one’s attitude in life and bringing that to every situation.  We can still see what’s wrong.  We can acknowledge things are terrible, but we don’t have to be defeated by it or allow the situation to control our emotions.  We can act in any circumstance, not just react.  That is one of the gifts of being human.  We can feel the pain of a situation and realize how bad things are and still not allow our joy to be taken away.  As a slogan on a tee shirt I wear has it:  “Life is not easy.  Life is not perfect.  Life is good.”


It is also worth noting that happiness in itself is not the greatest good.  As Roman Catholic theologian Peter Kreeft notes in his commentary on the writings of Blaise Pascal:

“… the nice, socially respectable man who makes other people happy.  This is modernity’s definition of a good man: one who makes others happy.  Pascal’s shocking point here is that it is not enough just to make others happy.  Bad people can make other bad people happy, and good people can make other good people unhappy, and often must do so, in a bad world. (Are dentists bad?)

Love of neighbor is not enough.  Kindness is not enough.  Compassion is not enough.  We also need righteousness, justice, holiness.  Tender virtue without tough virtue is not enough; sincerity without road maps is not enough.  (Is it enough for a travel agent?)”   (CHRISTIANITY FOR MODERN PAGANS, p 160)


We don’t choose happiness because it is the greatest good.  Repentance, apologizing, learning by experience, suffering the consequences of our own choices and making restitution are considered good, yet they may not be happy times.  Happiness and joy are choices of the heart – to approach every situation with calmness, faith, hope and love, to believe that no matter what is happening in the world, that God is good, merciful, kind and full of love for us, even if we are struggling in our life.   We come to realize that a faith in God means there is always more to story or to the picture than we can know, imagine or experience.  We have to wait on the Lord to reveal in His time the joy of His salvation.

See also my blog series on Psalm 51 which begins with Repentance: Being Washed by God

The Good News of the Apostles

On June 30 each year, we Orthodox honor the memory of the Twelve Apostles. Today because of Protestant Christianity many assume it is the Bible which preserves the Apostolic tradition.  However, at the beginning of Christianity there was no New Testament – the Gospel was orally proclaimed.  The New Testament itself does not portray the Apostles recording the words of Jesus, nor does it limit the Gospel to Scripture.  The Gospel is the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, who has come to save us.  Jesus is the Gospel, not some text which the Apostles wrote down and carried with themselves.  The Apostles were chosen by the Lord Jesus to be His disciples.  They in turn chose and discipled others to carry on the tradition they proclaimed.

“The crucial term here is ‘succession’ (diadoxe). … It serves to underline the essential nature of tradition, namely transmission from person to person.  This is a more important feature than its oral character, for it highlights the fact that the Apostles passed on the teaching of the Lord to persons whom they chose for this specific purpose.  It is thus a matter of an institutional continuity within which the deposit of faith entrusted to the Apostles is preserved, thus underlining the fact that the Apostles did not rely for the safeguarding of their message on the Scriptures alone, but also on living people.  A new feature of the Tradition now emerges: handed down by the Apostles, it is preserved as a deposit by the chain of succession.

In this connection it is worth noting that, if the term specific to the role of the Apostles is ‘transmit’ (tradere), the word which defines the role of the Church is ‘preserve’ (custodire, conservare).”  (Jean Danielou, GOSPEL MESSAGE AND HELLENISTIC CULTURE, p 147)

The Church is not merely the repository of the written tradition.  The Church also is those chosen to preserve the received tradition.  And not only to preserve it but to interpret it, live it and witness to it.  The Church is the people who have been chosen to be faithful to the Gospel and entrusted with the Apostolic proclamation.  The written text is important only if it is the Scripture preserved by the chosen people of God.   There can only be Scriptures if there are people to accept, preserve, interpret and live by them.  The Church could and did exist without a New Testament, but there would be no New Testament without the Church – the people who recognize the writings as holy and who not only proclaim or celebrate them, but who live by them.

“… one can only understand the Word of God as it is revealed in the preaching of Jesus Christ, the enfleshed Word, yet, at the same time, one must not remain at the flesh itself, for the flesh only exists as the flesh of the Word.  As we have seen, the Son of God, the enfleshed Word, is only made manifest in the preaching of the Apostles.  . . .   despite the fact that the Word of God was always seen and spoken of in human form, foreshadowing what was to come, Jesus Christ, the Son and Word of God, was really flesh as we are, though this can only be contemplated in the apostolic preaching, as the Word of God.”  (John Behr, THE WAY TO NICEA, p 161)

The Word of God became flesh not Scripture (John 1:14).  It was the Apostles and their disciples who recorded the proclamation of the Gospel to preserve it within the fellowship of believers.  We now encounter Christ only because there are people  who received the apostolic tradition, and preserved it by living it.  Without the preaching of the Gospel and a community dedicated to preserving and living by it, we would have no New Testament and no Christianity.  It really is only because there are people dedicated to living the Gospel that we can know the Gospel and its power.

Honoring St Paul

“I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”   (John 16:33)


“Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.”  (Luke 6:22-23)

St John Chrysostom, writing to his good friend St Olympia the Deaconess as she faced despondency over her own troubles in the Church, points to St Paul as an example of one who faced suffering and kept his faith and determination:

5875726446_8ea8bb056c_w“This is why God, the one who loves mankind [ho philanthropos], even when Paul besought him often to free him from sufferings and despondency and pains and dangers, did not assent:  ‘On account of this I besought the Lord three times,’ he says, ‘but he did not grant my request‘ (2 Cor 12:8).  Tell me, why was he about to receive such a great reward?  Because he preached the gospel while living in luxury and festivity?  Because he opened his mouth and moved his tongue while sitting at home?  That would have been easy for anyone, even for one whose courage was failing, and who was living a soft and dissolute life.  But now, for his wounds, for his enduring mortal dangers, for his journeys over land and sea, for despondency itself, for his tears and pains – ‘for three years,‘ he says, ‘I did not cease night and day to warn each one of you with tears‘ (Acts 20:31) – he will receive, with great confidence, compensations and crowns.  . . .  For bodily infirmity, in all its various forms, is more grievous that a myriad of death, since without ceasing it continually beleaguers you.  Being showered with abuses and outrages; bearing calumnies against yourself without a pause; being overwhelmed with continual, extreme sadness; and having fountains of tears throughout all this time – each one of these trials is sufficient by itself to procure great advantage to those who endure such things patiently.”  (LETTERS TO ST OLYMPIA, p 113)



Christ Died For the Ungodly


But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.  For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.  (Romans 5:8-10)


“For if you regard someone as ungodly and for that reason you do not judge him worthy to be loved, listen to this, ‘Christ died for the ungodly‘ (Romans 5:6).  Or if, because your brother is a sinner, for that reason you do not regard him worthy of being loved, hear this, ‘Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners‘ (1 Tim 1:15).  if in fact he is righteous, so much the more is he worthy of love; for ‘the Lord loves the righteous’ (Ps 146:8).”   (Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans Books 6-10, p 212)

Revolution in Time (II)

This is the 2nd and concluding post based on my reading of David Landes’ book, Revolution in Time.  The first post is Revolution in Time (I).  I read the book trying to understand how our adoption of mechanical clocks has altered our human understanding of time.  No longer do we look to natural signs (sun, moon) to determine time, now our lives (including our biological clocks) are entangled with the mechanical clocks we have manufactured.

Landes points out that before the clock was invented in the agricultural world no one really needed to know seconds or minutes.  They worked sunrise to sunset.  No one worried about productivity.  Craftsman did not earn wages by the hour but instead by the product.   In Western Europe, as already mentioned, the clock was first important for the Church in telling people when to show up at church – when the bells rang.  People weren’t looking at their watches to decide when to go to church, they only went to church when the tower bell rings, calling the community to prayer.  This became also true for industry – in the industrial revolution the business owners wanted to have ways to tell workers when to show up and when to go home – that was as accurate a timing as was needed.  No one was paid by the hour so work whistles served the same purpose as the church bells.

The real need for a better clock occurred with the discovery of the Americas.   In the 18th Century, Sailors knew how to calculate latitude (distances north and south) by measuring the stars against the horizon.  But no one knew how to calculate longitude (distances east and west).  This became critical as Transatlantic crossings become more frequent.  Ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean had no way of knowing how close they were to shore.  Many captains and crews dropped anchor at night because they feared running into land in the dark.  This made Transatlantic crossing even slower as they only sailed in the daylight.   Clocks that used pendulums or gears existed, but couldn’t function on a ship roiling on the waves.  Sailors knew how to measure speed in knots (how fast a ship passed by a number of knots on a rope put out at sea), but without a measurement of time they could not calculate distance.  The countries of Europe offered small fortunes to someone who could invent a clock that worked on a ship on the ocean.  The British Parliament offered a huge 20,000 pound reward to anyone who could invent a clock that could work on a ship.  Most of the great scientists and inventors of Europe worked on this with no success.  Then an unknown, self-taught clock making apprentice, John Harrison, developed a device that could work on a ship.  Finally, a machine with gears that could keep time accurate enough to work on a ship (not affected by the waves) which meant longitudinal distance could finally be calculated.  Harrison’s first working model was a 3 foot cube.   Twenty-five years later he made one that was a 5 inch cube and still worked good enough.

The next technological invention that required better clocks was the train.  People needed to know when to show up at the station to catch or meet a train.  This was more crucial in America than Europe because we have a bigger land mass.  But it caused more improvements in the clock – more accuracy, smaller timepieces.  This miniaturization led to the development of personal watches that could be easily carried in a pocket.

Where people had once depended on the cry of the night watch, the bell of the church, or the turret clock in the town square, now they had the time at home or on their person and could order their life and work in a manner once reserved to regulated communities.  In this way, privatization (personalization) of time was a major stimulus to the individualism that was an ever more salient aspect of Western civilization. (p 89)

Clocks and watches thus made possible the privatization of time.  Each person could carry their own time piece and know what time it was wherever they were. Thus each could be personally responsible for doing what needed to be done (go to work, go to church, go home).   People with watches were becoming more individualized and less reliant on society to know the time. Landes points out “. . . it is not ‘natural’ to want to know the precise time – that is, time as expressed in hours, minutes and subminutes” (p 25).  Nothing in nature calculates time so accurately and minutely.  The invention of the clock and watch mechanize time and thus change how we think about it and what use we make of that information.  Not only were the watches being miniaturized, but our attention to smaller units of time was increasing.  Seconds became important as did fractions of a second.  Just think about the end of a basketball game and how much time is used determining how much time is left in the game!

The clock had to be invented by humans, which as it turns out required a great amount of engineering and technology to make it happen.  There was nothing in nature which modeled a clock or made us so aware of tiny units of time.

“The clock is a machine, a work of artifice, a man-made device with no model in nature – the kind of invention that needed planning, thinking, trying, and then more of each.  No one could have stumbled on it or dreamed it up.  But someone, or rather some people. Wanted very much to track the time – not merely to know it, but to use it” (p 16).

The invention of timepieces made timekeeping possible.  Only human ingenuity and engineering made the clock possible.  Nothing in nature approximated the exact detailed timekeeping which clocks and watches made possible.

“What did not happen was that man wanted to measure time and so devised new ways of doing it.  What did happen is that in the course of following an old trend, not quite yet extinct, he developed quite sophisticated techniques, important for their technological brilliance, that gave him for the first time the possibility of doing something he had not wanted before it was readily available.  This product, timekeeping, caught on… ” (p 55)

Seconds and minutes do not really exist.  The clock and watch became mechanical ways to measure these things and to mark them so we could experience them.  Other needs – especially dealing with great distances was the real impetus for the development of the modern clock.  Clocks and watches made us ever more aware of the passing (tick tick tick) of minute units of time.  The clock and watch were training our brains to pay attention to something the ancients had not concern about.

A turning hand, specifically a minute hand (the hour hand turns so slowly as to seem still), is a measure of time used, time spent, time wasted, time lost.  As such it was prod and key to the personal achievement and productivity” (p 89).  It is only “in the seventeenth century (one hundred years of progress), we begin to see half-hour and then quarter-hour divisions on watch dials” (114).  The progress was slow, but this slowness allowed the watch and clock to become indispensable to human lives.  And the clock and watch changed our relationship to time, for now we think about time in mechanical rather than natural terms.  “… we now must intercalate leap seconds (as we continue to insert leap days) in order to make the calendar conform to the human experience of time and tide” (p 3).   The ancients did their best to conform “a year” to a lunar calendar of months each with an equal number of days.  But science says a year is how long it takes the earth to orbit the sun:  365.256 days (365 days, 5 hours and 48 minutes).  Only mechanical clocks can now keep time so precisely that we can determine an actual year.   Since this number is not a nice even number, we totally rely on instruments to track time, and we adjust our calendar year by leap seconds so that our sense of time will be scientifically accurate.

Our modern experience of time is so intertwined with the mechanics of clocks and watches that we have lost a natural sense of time.   Not only are we constantly looking at our watches, clocks and now cell phones to determine the time or “how long?”, but the mechanical time piece is now in our heads as well.  The keeping of time has changed us humans and how we think and experience the world.  The human invention of watches and clocks has made a lasting impression on our brains and our experience of life.

Revolution in Time (I)

I’ve had a fascination with time.  Not too long ago in human history we humans were satisfied to know a month by following the phases of the moon and the day could be marked by sunrise and sunset and not much more was needed.  Now in the computer age, not only do we keep total track of years, months, days, hours and minutes but even nanoseconds.  No longer are human rhythms governed by natural markers – sun, moon, stars – for now we are wedded to our calendars and clocks, and pay no attention to the natural signs of time.  All our time is now mechanically calculated and we hate to waste time because for us time is money.

So I undertook reading David Landes’ book, Revolution in Time, trying to understand how our relationship to time has changed the way we relate to and understand the world around us.  I did learn a great deal about the history of time pieces – mechanical devices for keeping, but not so much about how our reliance on mechanical time has shaped our relationship to the cosmos.

Until the modern age, few people had any interest in the hour of the day let alone seconds or minutes.  There being no way to measure them in the ancient world, they were inconsequential concepts.  As Landes notes: “The ordinary Chinese did not need to know the hour in order to do what had to be done.  He knew what had to be done, and sometimes the hour impinged on his consciousness” (p 29).  What was true for the Chinese was true for most people living in agrarian or pre-industrial societies.  Again, Landes points out: “Productivity, in the sense of output per unit of time, was unknown” (p 25).  No one was being paid by the hour, so people were not as attuned to time as we are today.

The development of the clock as such was given impetus by two forces in Western Europe:  1) the Church and its need to inform people when to show up for services; and,  2) the European discovery of the Americas which created a need to measure time in order to calculate great distances.

I’ve wondered how the ancients knew when “midnight” occurred since the length of days and nights changes year round.  Yet, the monks had a midnight office, which wasn’t done at 12:01am, but began halfway through the darkness.  But how did they know when that was without clocks?   Landes argues that Christians, specifically monks are responsible for the development of the modern clock.  Monasteries desired to have a discipline of prayer and needed ways to determine when to hold communal services.  They needed a standard way to tell time and call the monks to prayer, especially in the middle of the night.

“By the early third century, Tertullian, acknowledging the impracticality of the Pauline ideal of ceaseless prayer (1 Thess 5:17), recommended daily prayers at set times: in addition to the morning and evening prayers prescribed by the Law, there would be devotions at the third, sixth, and ninth hours.  These were the points that divided the daytime into quarters, and Tertullian asserts that they were recognized as temporal punctuation marks by all nations: ‘they serve to fix the times of business and they are announced publicly’”(p 60).

“…Pachomius in Upper Egypt in the early fourth century: against the prevailing eremitic individualism his new order instituted a minute regulation of the collective praying, working, eating and sleeping day.  . . .  It was in the West, in the Rule of Saint Benedict, that the new order of the offices found its first complete and detailed realization: six (later seven) daytime services (lauds, prime, tierce, sext, none, vespers and compline) and one at night (vigils, later matins)” (p 61).

[A humorous 11th Century story about time and the church:   A monk hears the bells calling him to the midnight Easter vigil.   A demon attempts to seduce the monk to sleep in rather than get up for the Easter midnight vigil.  The demon says to the monk: “As for you, I wonder why you so scrupulously jump out of bed as soon as you hear the bell, when you could stay resting even unto the third bell . . . but know that every year Christ empties hell of sinners and brings them to heaven, so without worry you can give yourself to all the voluptuousness of the flesh.”   In other words, even if you don’t attend the Easter service and sleep through it, there is always next year to do it right since Christians celebrate the same feast year after year.]

No one knows when the mechanical clock was invented, but it appears in Western Europe first – but by the time it appears in literature it is already a well known mechanical device, so its origins remain a mystery.  The Chinese invented the water clock (clepsydra) but it falls into disuse.  The Europeans also had a waterclock shortly after the Chinese but no one knows if the inventions are related.   But mechanical clocks appear first in Europe and only centuries later in China where for the longest time they were considered a toy for entertainment and not of real value to anyone.

As European towns grew around their central church, the towns people relied on the church to inform them about the time of services.  The church bells could inform people of other times during the day as well as events happening in town – funerals, fires, important announcements.  Through the decades people became ever more attuned to the town clocks, so clocks became increasingly important.

Next: Revolution in Time (II)