Finding the time
I lost my watch this summer. I had just arrived at a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota, where I planned to write as much as I could. At first, I was worried that without my watch I’d miss when they were serving meals and the times of daily prayer. But then I heard the bells. The bells tolled every quarter hour and also ten minutes before the time for prayer, and they were loud. I wasn’t going to miss anything.
It was the Benedictines, a monastic order going back to the fifth century, that invented the first clock. They have a life of work and worship organized around prayer throughout the day. They invented the first clock as a way to ensure that those prayer times happened with regularity and precision.
At first – the clocks didn’t have minute hands or even a face, they just controlled the bells to ring at a particular time. The word “clock” is derived from the middle Dutch word for “bell.” Clocks with minute hands and watch faces came centuries after those first mechanisms for ringing the bell. The purpose of those original clocks was to call people to prayer. They enabled people to order their lives around their practices of faith. By the 16th century, clock towers were built in town squares with minutes and second hands. The bells ringing through town were not primarily to call people to prayer, but to work and to the markets, a reality that remains true for us today.
I still can’t find my watch, though I need it now, again. Our days are not quite as simple as the time I had at the monastery. But we can still structure our time in ways that help us practice faith in an intentional way.
Clocks are necessary. They help us make it to appointments punctually, get to work on time, ensure that we don’t miss things or waste other people’s time, but also to make space for the stuff that matters. They are tools, and we could use them to help us to structure our lives around the things that matter to us. Maybe we set an alarm to stop midway through the day, to pray or walk, or just be present and grateful. Maybe we can stack a time of reading or meditation with part of a daily errand. Maybe we schedule an alarm that goes off every week – like those bells that toll at churches around the world – to ensure that we make it to church on the weekend.
Time is a gift, and the way we spend it is how we live our lives. Jesus said that “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It’s also true that where our time is, our heart is there, too. This time of year, even those whose lives aren’t set by an academic calendar are settling into new rhythms. This can be a time to follow those monks and use those clocks to build time to pray into our days.
We can order our lives with some intentional space to praise God, to pause and remember who we are and whose we are. In this, we can use clocks for their original purpose, to call people to prayer.