Praying the Hours (5): Sext and None

This is the fifth in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This reflection considers Sext and None, the hours of midday and mid-afternoon.

Midday sun near the Summer Solstice (Eugene, Oregon: June 25, 2011)

Bumper to bumper, the days stream past the day-old baked goods store though sometimes a Sunday morning pulls in, driven by some old man who stops in the present for a moment to buy a little bag of yesterdays. But mostly the days, by the dozens, dry out and get thrown to the birds, sparrows and starlings to whom each hour is as tasty as the last.

— Ted Kooser, The Wheeling Year

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

— Philip Larkin, “The Whitsun Weddings”

Sext

The “sixth hour” after Prime is the midpoint of the solar day. At the highest point of its arc, the sun concludes its ascent by crossing the meridian, passing over from the sky’s eastern half (ante meridian) into its western half (post meridian). From there until sunset, it’s all downhill. 

As the summit of the solar journey, when all shadows shrink toward nothingness, noon shares the refulgence of the summer solstice: the sky’s luminosity is at the full, and time pauses to linger. “Here the sun, / Sleepless, inhales his proper air, and rests,” said Wallace Stevens, celebrating the annual moment of “arrested peace, / Joy of such permanence, right ignorance / Of change still possible.”[i] An earlier American poet, Emily Dickinson, celebrated noon as a daily symbol of fullness and ripeness. It was a momentary taste of eternity, a glorious timeout from the temporal flow. 

The soul has moments of Escape—
When bursting all the doors—
She dances like a Bomb, abroad,
And swings upon the Hours,

As do the Bee—delirious borne—
Long Dungeoned from his Rose—
Touch Liberty—then know no more,
But Noon, and Paradise— [ii]

The whimsical Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) recommends proper enjoyment of the midday pause. “Just as lunch was at the center of man’s temporal day, and man’s temporal day could be seen as an analogy for his spiritual life, so lunch should (a) be seen as the center of man’s spiritual life, and (b) be held in jolly nice restaurants.”[iii]

But midday can be more than a pleasant break in the action. However busy the day, monastic communities take time out to give thanks for the morning, reflect on its challenges and its gifts, and invite grace and wisdom for the afternoon. And so too may we uncloistered believers, immersed in the secular world, profitably recollect, reorient, and recommit in the middle of the day’s story. What is time for? What is this day for? What is it trying to tell me? What is it asking of me?  “We harvest what the morning sowed,” says a noonday hymn. “Now grant us undiminished strength / to stand and do what still remains.”[iv]

For the mystic, the noonday surplus of earthly light both images and ignites an inner fire. “Be ablaze with enthusiasm,” said Hildegard of Bingen. “Let us be an alive burning offering before the altar of God.”[v] And it was beneath the midday sun that St. Paul was brought to his knees by “a bright light from heaven” (Acts 22:6). To borrow another line from Emily Dickinson, I imagine Paul’s transformative glimpse of divinity to have been “As much of Noon as I could take / Between my finite eyes.”[vi]

But even in the brightest noon, there lurks the shadow of crisis, “the barrenness / Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.”[vii] Just as the sun’s zenith is the beginning of its descent into night, the soul at noon must reckon with its own temporality. Our escape into the “arrested peace” of Paradise is but a moment. Like the sun, we too must decline toward the Night. And the sense of an ending, the pressure of time running out, afflicts the present moment with doubt. Have I done my best with this day so far? Will I have time to complete the work I have been given to do? Does it matter?

In their meditations on the Canonical Hours, David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell point out the spiritual duality of the noonday hour:

“Sext comes right in the middle of the day, in the middle of everything. It is the middle of our life each day, the time of opportunity and the time of crisis … At this turning point in time we decide the fate of our day, and cumulatively the fate of our lives. Do we renew our fervor and commitment, or do we let the forces of entropy drain our resolve?”[viii]

The Latin word for noon (meridiem) and its European derivatives (mezzogiornomediodiale midi) are simply descriptive: “the middle of the day.” But the English term, confusingly derived from None, the canonical hour for mid-afternoon (3 p.m.), holds negativity in its heart. As a palindrome, it reads “no” from either direction. This double no evokes refusal, but is it the refusal of time—noon as a taste of timeless eternity—or something more dire: refusal of the temporal flow of life itself?

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

In her poem, “A Clock stopped,” Dickinson sees a death image in the cessation of a ticking clock at exactly 12 p.m.—called “Degreeless noon” by the poet because the overlapping of hour and second hands, both pointing to XII, leaves no intervening angle between them. Their stilled hands no longer circle the hours. Their “dial life” is at an end. Does that signify eternity or oblivion? This question haunts many of Dickinson’s writings. The word “no” permeates this poem, not only in “noon” but also in “not,” “snow,” “nods,” and, most chillingly, “concernless No”—conveying the indifference of death and nothingness to human fate.[ix]

A Clock stopped – 
Not the Mantel’s –  
Geneva’s farthest skill 
Can’t put the puppet bowing –  
That just now dangled still –  

An awe came on the Trinket! 
The Figures hunched, with pain –  
Then quivered out of Decimals –  
Into Degreeless Noon –  

It will not stir for Doctors –  
This Pendulum of snow –  
This Shopman importunes it –  
While cool – concernless No –  

Nods from the Gilded pointers –  
Nods from the Seconds slim –  
Decades of Arrogance between 
The Dial life –  
And Him –

The word for midday occupies the exact middle of the poem: noon is the 38th word out of 75. And the poet makes it rhyme with pain. That’s a slant rhyme: the vowels disagree but the hard sound of the final consonants match. The pairing of noon and pain is unsettling, expressing the ambivalent nature of the hour—the solar zenith where the day begins its decline. Significantly, it was at this very moment that the Lord of life was nailed to the cross, as every noonday liturgy recalls.

Blessed Savior, at this hour you hung upon the cross, stretching out your loving arms: Grant that all the peoples of the earth may look to you and be saved; for your tender mercies’ sake. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer: Service for Noonday).[x]

Mortality is not noon’s only shadow. The Psalmist warns of “the sickness that lays waste at noonday” (Psalm 91:6). The Greek term for this malady is acēdia, variously translated as listlessness, restless boredom, discouragement, despondency. At its extreme is the suicidal ennui of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” who descends into total inaction with his perpetual refrain of refusal: “I prefer not to.” John Cassian (c. 350-435), whose 5th-century writings on desert spirituality would be a wellspring for later monastics, rendered acēdia in Latin as taedium cordis (“tedium of the heart”). The desert saints, who struggled with acēdia beneath the enervating Egyptian sun, gave it a more personal title: “the noonday demon.”

Desert Sext (Baja California, 12:05 p.m., October 1, 2005).

Cassian’s desert mentor, Evagrius Ponticus (c. 360-399), described acēdia as a chronic inability to be present:

“The eyes of the listless monk gaze out the window again and again, and his mind imagines visitors. A sound at the door, and he jumps up .… When he reads, the listless monk yawns plenty and easily falls asleep. He rubs his eyes and stretches his arms. His eyes wander from the book. He stares at the wall and then goes back to his reading for a little. He then wastes his time hanging on to the end of words, counts the pages, ascertains how the book is made, finds fault with the writing and the design. Finally he just shuts it and uses it as a pillow. Then he falls into a sleep not too deep, because hunger wakes his soul up and he begins to concern himself with that.”[xi]

I’ve met that noonday demon, and I suspect you have too. All the more needful, then, to transit the daily meridian with a prayer on our lips, and trust in our heart. “Today I place before you death and life,” says the Holy One. “Choose life!”[xii]

None

You sweep us away like a dream;
we fade away suddenly like the grass. (Psalm 90:5)

By mid-afternoon, lengthening shadows measure the lateness. With each day’s passing, we think about endings and rehearse our own finality. The daily theater of impermanence may provoke in us wistfulness or melancholy. But it can also teach the art of letting go. This day has bestowed its gifts and it blessings. We have received them as best we could. We are grateful. But we don’t hold on. We don’t worry about the morrow. We entrust ourselves to the Giver, without clinging to the gift. 

At None, the day’s labors are winding down. We might wish for more time, or more energy, to complete them gracefully, and we may not have the option to set them down unfinished. But if one has any choice in the matter, would it be better to honor the hour rather than the task? Late afternoon, the hour of None, calls us to work of a more inward kind. How can we make space for the questions, and the prayers which they prompt in us? 

What has this day taught me? What could I do differently tomorrow? What requires mending before the sun sets? What burdens can I lay down? Who needs my forgiveness? What must I forgive in myself? What am I grateful for? What precious moments did I forget to sanctify with my deepest attention? Where did I remember God?

Shadows deepen at None (York Minster, UK: October 21, 2015).

The light of a waning afternoon is the sweetest kind. It is warmer and softer, purged of glare and harshness, suffused with fondness. It invites stillness, contemplation, tranquility, rest. It makes the world glow for weary eyes. It is honey for the soul. In these latter days, most of us lack tower bells to announce a pause for mindfulness, or muezzins in minarets calling us to prayer. But afternoon light remains omnipresent, inviting us all to sink into the mystery of the moment, wherever we may be.

W. H. Auden wrote a cycle of poems on the canonical hours: Horae Canonicae. As the poems take us through the diurnal passage from Prime to Compline, we soon realize the poet is talking about Good Friday. The poem for None—the hour when Christ died—imagines the waning of that most singular day.

It is barely three,
Mid-afternoon, yet the blood
Of our sacrifice is already 
Dry on the grass; we are not prepared 
For silence so sudden and so soon; 
The day is too hot, too bright, too still,
Too ever, the dead remains too nothing.
What shall we do until nightfall?

These lines register something of my own feelings over a lifetime of Good Fridays, when I exit the church at None into “silence so sudden and so soon.” How does one move on from the death of God? What shall we do until nightfall?

Soon cool tramontana will stir the leaves, 
The shops will re-open at four,
The empty blue bus in the empty pink square
Fill up and depart: we have time 
To misrepresent, excuse, deny,
Mythify, use this event,
While, under a hotel bed, in prison,
Down wrong turnings, its meaning 
Waits for our lives …[xiii]

I think every disappearing afternoon shares something of this mood. Most days, the doings will be far less dramatic or significant, but there still remains a sense of aftermath, of carrying on under the influence of events now past, trying to make sense of them—or not—while somewhere up ahead, a fuller accounting “waits for our lives.” In any case, every day changes us, and discerning how is part of our prayer life. 

But if the weight of Auden’s subject seems too much to carry with you into the average evening, let me leave you with a poem by William Stafford, a gem of self-compassion for the late afternoon:

Nobody cares if you stop here.  You can
look for hours, gaze out over the forest.
And the sounds are yours too—take away
how the wind either whispers or begins to
get ambitious.  If you let the silence of
afternoon pool around you, that serenity
may last a long time, and you can take it
along.  A slant sun, mornings or evenings,
will deepen the canyons, and you can carry away
that purple, how it gathers and fades for hours.
This whole world is yours, you know.  You can
breathe it and think about it and dream it after this
wherever you go.  It’s all right.  Nobody cares.[xiv]



[i] Wallace Stevens, “Credences of Summer,” Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: The Library of America, 1997), 323.

[ii] Emily Dickinson, “The Soul has Bandaged moments”— F360 (1862) 512.

[iii] Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe, and Everything (1980), cited in Mark Barrett, OSB, Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008), 9.

[iv] Charles P. Price, “The fleeting day is nearly gone,” Episcopal Hymnal 1982, # 23.

[v] Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), cited in Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008), 111.

[vi] Emily Dickinson, “Before I got my eye put out”— F 336 (1862) 327.

[vii] Wallace Stevens, “Credences of Summer.”

[viii] Brother David Steindl-Rast & Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day (Brooklyn, NY: Ulysses Press, 2001).

[ix] Emily Dickinson, “A Clock stopped” — F259 (1861) 287.

[x] Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 107.

[xi] Evagrius Ponticus, On the Eight Spirits of Evil, cited in William Harmless, S.J., Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 204), 326.

[xii] Deuteronomy 30:19.

[xiii] W. H. Auden, “Nones,” Horae Canonicae, in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976).

[xiv] William Stafford, “Nobody Cares,” Crossing Unmarked Snow (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1998).

1 thought on “Praying the Hours (5): Sext and None

  1. Pingback: Praying the Hours (7): Compline | The religious imagineer

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