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).

Cave of the Apocalypse

Katholikon of the Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian

Katholikon of the Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian


I, John … was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice saying, ‘Write in a book what you see …’    (Rev. 1:9-11)

Patmos is one of the smaller Dodecanese Islands, a grueling 8-hour middle-of-the-night ferry ride east of Athens. It has gorgeous bays and quiet beaches, superb mountain views, charming villages and, at least not in summer’s high season, a tranquil predominance of locals over tourists. The outsiders I have met are themselves “regulars,” returning again and again because they love it. Yesterday a man from the Netherlands told me this was his 23rd straight year of month-long visits.

Patmos is also a place of pilgrimage, where St. John the Theologian (or “the Divine,” as we say in the western church), fell into a swoon and saw things which have intrigued, puzzled, disturbed and inspired readers ever since. The Book of Revelation has, regretfully, provided horrific weapons of mass destruction for hellfire preachers, but it is also the source for many sublime hymns and prayers in my own Anglican tradition.

Most scholars think that the book’s author is not the same person who wrote the Fourth Gospel. Language, style and themes are too different in the two works. But “tradition” has always preferred to link the Galilean fisherman “whom Jesus loved” with both the mystical composer of the Fourth Gospel and the visionary exiled to Patmos. It exemplifies the arc of discipleship as potentially a long, strange trip. As we sang in a hymn at my own ordination years ago, “the peace of God, it is no peace … Young John, who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless in Patmos died; Peter, who hauled the teeming net, headdown was crucified.”

So the Christian can’t come to Patmos and simply lie on the beach or relax in the taverna. The Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian beckons from the high ridge above the  port. Its dark-hued fortress of lion-colored stone makes somber contrast with the whitewashed village around it, as if to say that the ascent of this hill is serious business.

The monastery rises above the village of Chora.

The monastery rises above the village of Chora.

If you rise early, you can experience the awesome richness of the monastery’s Katholikon (main church) in solitude. The brilliant wall paintings, recently cleaned, immerse you in holy images. Along with the intricately carved iconostasis, hanging oil lamps, and numerous icons, they effect a ceaseless engagement of the eye. Some might find this distracting for prayer, but for me the sense that there is always more than I can take in – the visual inexhaustibility of Orthodox interiors – can lead to a kind of surrender, overwhelming and transcending the subjectivity of my own thoughts and perceptions. Here is Mystery. Give over to it. Lose yourself in it.

The monastery museum holds an eclectic assortment of treasures, including a 6th century gospel book, a 1499 Venetian collection of Aristophanes’ comedies, a 6th century BC bust of Dionysus (god of wine and ecstasy), the largest Orthodox collection of 5th-6th century Coptic textiles, preserved by the dryness of Egyptian tombs, and a police blotter in Arabic from the late 15th century, when Byzantine territories had fallen under Muslim control (“The Cadi [Judge] of the Palace is ordered to find three Patmians who were kidnapped by pirates.”).

Below the monastery, halfway up the hill from the sea, is the Cave of the Apocalypse. Here, according to tradition, John lay on the stone floor for several days while the vision unfolded. The cave is not large, but the insertion of a wooden iconostasis into its contours, along with icons and hanging lamps, has made it a compelling place for worship, prayer and veneration. John’s private ecstasy has been reimagined through specific features of the cave. Here is the cleft from which the Voice spoke. Here is the corner when he laid his head to rest between revelations. Here are the fissures where the Trinitarian God divided the rock into three parts with an earthquake.

Literal belief in the details of the cave’s legends is not required to make the site holy. It is holy because centuries of believers have given a particular kind of attention here to a Reality which yearns to make itself known in the innermost heart, for which a sheltering, enclosing cave is a tangible, sensory analogy.

Another mystical theologian, St. Bonaventure, said, “When you pray, gather up your whole self, enter with your Beloved into the chamber of your heart, and there remain alone with your Beloved, forgetting all exterior concerns.” The Cave, for the attentive, can mirror the chamber of the heart.

I entered it three times during my week here. The first time was the Sunday liturgy, full of incense and chanting voices. It was beautiful, but I had no revelations, or even deep feelings. God was present, but I was a bit absent. I was tired from a long, sleepless ferry ride. And I knew that whatever the Cave offered was not a tourist experience you can just walk in and collect.

So I went back a few days later. The voices I heard then were those of tour guides. Most just reeled off the legends uncritically as if they were prosaic facts. Here this and that happened, blah blah blah, now let’s go back to the bus. But one guide, a Greek woman speaking both in English and German, really got into it.

“People think that the Book of Revelation is about judgment and punishment. That is there, of course, but by the time you get to Chapter 21, you find what it is really about: a new world, a new heaven, a new earth, where we will be with God, and God with us.

“John’s message is trying to wake us up, to make us see that we are all one because God is with us and in us. Our original condition of oneness will be restored in the end. We lost that unity in the beginning because we had free will, and we chose to have our own experience, and forgot our connection with one another.

“If a bomb falls on someone in Syria, we think, ‘Thank God that didn’t happen to me.’ But what happens to others happens to all of us. John is trying to wake us up to this. And when he talks about the destruction of the earth, we have to think about how much closer we ourselves are to bringing that about today, unless we remember what we were made for and what we are a part of.”

When I thanked her afterward for her ‘preaching,’ she said, “I want to tell people what they don’t know, what they don’t hear in the schools, what the priests won’t tell you.” She was pretty sour on the institutional church. “I was baptized Greek Orthodox. I believe in Christ and the power of the sacraments, but I don’t belong to any church. I’m kind of a revolutionary.” I asked her name. “Vera,” she said. “Like veritas– the truth.”

This morning, my last on Patmos, I returned to the Cave for a third time. Two cantors and a priest were chanting the Divine Liturgy. I was the only other person present. This time, the spirit of prayer came easily, like a morning breeze. I received no visions, heard no voices except the beautiful earthly ones I stood among. But it was more than enough. When the priest handed out the holy bread at the end, I was aware of my outsider status as non-Orthodox. But the priest, who had the face of a Baroque Apostle, turned to me with a slight nod. And so I ate the bread of heaven, and departed well satisfied.

Stairway to heaven

image

A modern road has made the monasteries accessible to tourists, but a pilgrim may still ascend more deliberately on the old wooded paths leading up from the lowlands. The way is peaceful and full of birdsong, and the upward views of immense cliffs and towers crowned with such fanciful habitats were continuously astonishing.

At the top, the hiker joins the throng who have arrived in bus or car, often to find a prevailing atmosphere of chatter which neglects or obscures the beauty of holiness. People wave and smile at cameras, offer the same brief glance to Christian images which they gave to Athena and Apollo in the Greek museums, enjoy the spectacular views, and head off to the next attraction. It doesn’t always feel like pilgrimage. And many of the monks themselves have long since fled to more solitary retreats.

But patience may be rewarded, and today there were fortunate lulls in the touristic turbulence, when the worship spaces emptied out and prayerful attention was possible.

image

The priestly preface to a guidebook published by one of the monasteries wishes the pilgrim “a rare spiritual journey between heaven and earth, in order to “taste here newfound bliss, spiritual uplift and powerful emotions” providing release from daily routine. And I can testify to the tangible effect of a long and dramatic wilderness ascent to arrive in a room, lit only by the soft daylight falling from a few small, high windows, and there be immersed in a sepulchral interior filled with icons and hanging lanterns, where every wall is painted with frescoes of saints and biblical scenes. It feels like a space praying ceaselessly in story and image, bearing witness to the Divine Mystery until the end of time.

The images are painted in bright colors, which stand out intensely against their ink-black bakgrounds, so strikingly different from the familiar golden environments of most Byzantine iconography. This distinctive style came from Theophanes, a fifteenth-century Cretan artist who worked here as well as at Mt. Athos. To a modern viewer, for whom the gilded world of faith is no longer a given, the blackness suggests a void against which the existential cry of “let there be light” must ever be a proposal fraught with risk.

image

The holy paintings of Meteora, like the Christianity that produced them, have suffered fading and wear over the centuries, and some of their meanings have grown obscure. But unless a grain of wheat should fall into the ground and die, it cannot bear any fruit.

This wondrous day ended with a visit to the oldest Byzantine cutch in the region, built not at the summit but at the foot of the Meteora rocks. It was empty of visitors when my wife Karen and I arrived at sunset. Before leaving, I asked the Greek woman who collected admissions if I could sing a Kyrie in the resonant space. I’m not sure she understood exactly what I was asking, but she seemed agreeable enough. I stepped into the nave and began. The Kyrie I chose was an ancient Greek setting. She recognized the chant and began to sing along somewhere behind me. Orthodox and Anglican, Greek and American, female and male, praying together amid the cloud of painted witnesses all around us. “She had tears in her eyes,” Karen told me later.

As we took our leave, I said the Greek acclamation for Easter: Christos anesti! Christ is risen! “Alithos anesti,” she replied with a smile. Indeed he is risen.