The Hours*

I've blogged before about my years living at Shim Gwang SaMind Light Temple, located on the outskirts of Boston. It was wonderful community living and a privilege to train zen martial arts under the tutelage of a modern Zen Master. After several seasons I became attuned to temple life and the concomitant seasonal changes in nature, due in part to the tempo of care and maintenance of the temple building itself, its gardens, and grounds.

With the setting back of clocks this weekend, I'm reminded that we revere monastics (and poets) for their moment-to-moment awareness: awareness of subtle shifts in nature, awareness of time.(1) Thinking further about time found me reflecting on the monastic understanding of the word "hour", which goes back to the Greek word, hora.

The Greek notion means "time" or "season", and is more expansive than our notion of a day evenly divided into twenty-four-hour segments. Modern folk come closer to an appreciation of the original understanding when considering the seasons of the year: in which a season is a mood and an experience, not an exact period that starts, say, on December twenty-first and ends on March twenty-first. We sense a difference in the quality of light, the length of daylight, the feel of the air on our skin and are aware that something is changing in nature.

This time of year feels natural to slow down and begin a daily practice of contemplation and meditation. All of this thinking about monastic life has drawn forth memories of extended family who had taken Holy Orders -- and of my first encounters with the canonical hours. A canonical hour is more a presence than a measurement. Benedictine Brother David refers to this sense of time as "a soul measure". He says, even in our busy modern schedules we notice that pre-dawn, early morning, and high noon each have qualities all their own. Mid-afternoon, "the time shadows lengthen", has a different character from the time when it gets dark and we turn on the lights. Each monastic hour issues a distinctive challenge and calls for a unique response; just reading about them invites a sense of calm and purpose:
  • Vigils - The Night Watch: before the day's noises begin; when it is still perfectly quiet
  • Lauds - The Coming of the Light: around breakfast time; nourish your soul for the coming day
  • Prime - Deliberate Beginning: when you get to your workplace and just before you begin
  • Terce - Blessing: a mid-morning prayer break
  • Sext - Fervor and Commitment: a meditation during lunch hour
  • None - Shadows Grow Longer: the needed boost for the last hours of the work day
  • Vespers - Lighting the Lamps: an evening celebration
  • Compline - Completing the Circle: at night just before going to bed
Of course, there are many ways to pray (and not all chose to). It was said of Abba Arsenius, a desert monk from 4th or 5th century Egypt, that on Saturday evenings, preparing for the "the glory of Sunday", he would turn his back on the sun and stretch out his hands in prayer towards the heavens, till once again the sun shone on his face. Then he would sit down.
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Bonus hour this weekend with the end of Daylight Saving Time; clocks back Saturday night.