From the Psalter:
The span of our life is seventy years,
perhaps in strength even eighty;
yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow,
for they pass away quickly and we are gone.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 90:10 (BCP Version) – June 21, 2014)
A friend and colleague preparing to sell her home and take up residence with her husband in a retirement community told me recently that she and he had begun disposing of their many possessions. Among the things to which they have said “Good-Bye” is her husband’s collection of clocks.
That got me thinking about two clocks that my wife and I own but which I’ve not seen in several years. I know where one is; the other’s location is a complete mystery.
The first is a handmade seven-foot tall grandfather clock; the actual clock workings are in the top 30″ or so. It is made almost entirely of wood. The gears, teeth, all the inner workings are hand-carved from a variety of hardwoods. Everything is open to view. There is no case, but rather a frame of hand-rubbed mahogany. The face is smoky gray plexiglass with applied hand-carved wooden numerals; one can see the escapement and other parts working away behind. Or … at least … one was able to do that.
The clock, which was made by my stepfather many years ago, was damaged, badly, by the moving company which transported our possessions from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Overland Park, Kansas, in 1993. Because that move was so bizarrely accomplished, with separation of family, temporary quarters, two storage facilities, and a variety of other missteps, we didn’t know about the damage until way too late to file a claim with the movers. But we have kept the clock and moved it to Ohio and now it sits in a storage loft that we visit maybe four times in a calendar year.
I dread opening its crate and looking at it. I will hate myself for what I have allowed to happen to that clock. I should dispose of it, but I can’t bring myself to do so. I’m sure it is unrepairable, yet I can’t let go of something that my stepdad spent so much time creating.
The other is a mantel clock we found in a garage sale many years ago. It is the sort known as an “anniversary” or “400-day” clock. It didn’t work when we bought it, but we had it repaired and it sat on the mantel in our Las Vegas home for several years. Like my stepfather’s clock, its inner workings are all visible through a glass dome. Like my stepfather’s clock, it went into a packing crate with many other things when we moved to Kansas. And like that handmade clock, I’ve not seen it since. To the best of my knowledge we’ve never opened that box; I’ve no idea what else is in it nor even where it is, in fact. (We have unopened moving boxes in a spare bedroom, in our basement, and in that storage facility. Why, I often wonder, do we have all this stuff?)
All these clocks — my colleague’s husband’s collection, my stepfather’s handmade grandfather clock, our long-unseen anniversary clock — came to mind reading today’s Psalm, supposed to be “a prayer of Moses” in which the ancient Hebrew contemplates the nature of time. “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom,” he prays (v. 12). And we have learned to “number days” with ever increasing exactitude. We measure not only days, but hours, minutes, seconds, fractions of time so tiny that millions pass in the blink of an eye. Scientists have calculated the infinitesimally small life span of sub-atomic particles and the inconceivably long existence of the entire universe (now believed to be something just short of 14 billion years). But do we really understand time?
We can reduce time to days, hours, minutes, seconds, and even smaller units. We can envision months, years, eons, and longer periods. We can measure and divide time into constituent parts just like we could separate the components of my stepfather’s broken clock or the anniversary clock. But we cannot explain time; we don’t really understand its mystery. The most we can say of time is that it exists, it passes, and we can measure it. Albert Einstein is supposed to have said, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”
Although we experience time as “moving” in only one “direction,” from past through present and into the future, there is no reason that it must do so. The equations of quantum mechanics and superstring theory insist that time can just as well “move” in the opposite direction, although we’ve never seen it and cannot seem to make that happen in the laboratory. Nonetheless, the mathematics are there and the equations make logical sense.
So here we are 1,500 (or whatever) years after Moses still no better able to understand the workings of time than he and the wandering, wondering Hebrews were. The mysteries of time are as hidden from us as my two boxed-up clocks. In another psalm, one attributed to David, we read, “My times are in your hand.” (Ps. 31:15a) So it was for Moses, so it was David, so it was for my stepfather and the maker of the anniversary clock, and so it is for us. Teach us to use our time wisely, Lord.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.