Chris McDonnell: The Passing of Time


From Persistence of Memory Salvador Dali


The passing of time

Chris McDonnell CT March 26th 2021

This weekend sees the start of British Summer Time.

During British Summer Time, our clocks are put forward by one hour in advance of Greenwich Mean Time, so that our mornings have one hour less daylight, and evenings one hour more. This change begins at 1.00am GMT on the last Sunday of March and ends at 1.00am on the last Sunday of October.

This adjusting of our clocks first took place during World War I in order to create more daylight working hours for factories. During the Second World War the advance was two hours.

Measured from Greenwich, time zones are marked out round the earth. With the large size of the United States, that country is defined by a number of time zones, from Eastern Standard time centred on Washington DC and the Atlantic coast, through Central Standard Time for the mid-west, on to Pacific Standard Time on the west coast. It is very important that young people are taught about world time zones for a cheery call home from a holiday can result in a broken night’s sleep for those left behind in the UK or Ireland.

There is a wonderful passage early in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes that tells in graphic detail descriptive words on the appropriate use of time. It is a passage I love.


There is a time for everything,
 and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,
 a time to plant and a time to uproot,
 a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,
 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
 a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
 a time to search and a time to give up,
 a time to keep and a time to throw away,
 a time to tear and a time to mend,
 a time to be silent and a time to speak,
 a time to love and a time to hate, 

a time for war and a time for peace.”

The whole of our life experience is covered in those few simple words. We have a phrase for doing something – we talk of ‘the right time’. Sometimes we are advised to wait before acting, to wait for the right time when it is appropriate to speak. Not choosing our time with care and thoughtfulness can make us ineffectual in our actions. Early in the gospel of Mark, Jesus makes the point of appropriateness when he says “This is the time of fulfilment. The kingdom of God is at hand.”

A clock with an audible tick can be a very restful companion. A very good friend of mine, George, had such a clock. It stood against the wall in the hallway and was a good companion to our evening conversations round his wood-burning stove, steadily ticking in the background, marking the quarter hours with extra chimes and striking the hour with great solemnity. I still miss that clock just as I have missed George these last four years. He lives on in the persistence of memory,

The longcase clock, or grandfather clock, used to be an imposing feature in many homes. Relations of mine, an Auntie and Uncle, had one. We were visiting their house one year, just after Christmas, and in order to keep a five-year-old boy quiet, I was told that Fr Christmas would be coming at three o’clock. So I sat in the hall watching the pendulum swing back and forth and the hands steadily approach three o’clock. The clock chimed three and I can still remember my disappointment when the expected visitor failed to arrive.

The opening lines of Burnt Norton, the first of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets, speak of time.

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.”

We are intrigued by time, telling the story of where we have come from and where we might be heading to. More importantly, we need to attend to the space between, where we find ourselves now, this day, this moment. The time that we have lived through is gone, with all its joys and regrets, satisfactions and disappointments. The time of our future is unknown and inaccessible. Later in Burnt Norton Eliot writes:

“Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”

The present time is the certainty of our experience. That is why the phrase ‘killing time’ is so fruitless. Time is precious and pointless activity to fill in a space is a gratuitous waste of opportunity. The opening verse of the Pink Floyd song Time tells the same story.

“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.”

What will you do if your tomorrow never comes?

We are always within reach of the time, whether on a wrist watch or on a mobile phone display. ‘What time is it?’ is an easily answered question. At one time the Bell chimes from the village clock on the church tower told the story in a more casual manner.

The hours between sunrise and sunset were the working hours in the fields, the Smithy and the workshop. There was no need for a digital readout, accurate to the nearest second. Life was taken at a slower pace.

The Angelus bell told its own story, a pause for prayer, a moment for reflection.

One of the iconic songs of the 60s was written and sung by Bob Dylan – “The Times they are a changin’.” It reflects a period of societal change and challenges rejection of the new culture, especially asking generational questions. It opens with these words

“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

It goes on to tell us that “the chance won’t come again”. In other words, grab the moment when it is offered, whatever it might be.

In verse 3, those currently in power are challenged not to get in the way but to listen to a new generation.

“ ….Please heed the call, Don’t stand in the doorway, Don’t block up the hall, For he that gets hurt, Will be he who has stalled, There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’…”

Verse 4 speaks of family relationships and asks for understanding between parents and their sons and daughters and suggests that radical change is coming; “…your old road is rapidly agin’ , Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand.”

That one song tells the story of a decade in a succinct and pointed manner, tells the story of a time of radical change in a challenging and concise manner.

We have a phrase “Time and tide wait for no man”.

The notion of ‘tide’ being beyond man’s control brings up images of the King Canute story. He demonstrated to his courtiers the limits of a king’s power by failing to make the sea obey his command. That literal interpretation of ‘tide’ in ‘time and tide’ is what is now usually understood, but wasn’t what was meant in the original version of the expression. ‘Tide’ didn’t refer to the contemporary meaning of the word, that is, the rising and falling of the sea, but to a period of time. When this phrase was coined tide meant a season, or a time, or a while.

So when you put the clocks forward this weekend spare a passing thought as to how you use your time from one day to the next, for the times are indeed a changin’.


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