A Wait Problem

L'Horloge de Sapience (the Clock of Wisdom) from about 1450

As a society, we Australians are not very good at waiting. Being at the end of a long queue in the supermarket, or at the petrol station, or the ticket office is enough to send us into an agitated frenzy. Trolley rage, road rage, crowded train rage – you name it, we rage about it. Busyness is considered a virtue and anyone who is not ‘flat out’, head-down, tail-up’, ‘haven’t got a minute’ is obviously not pulling their weight in this country with some of the longest working hours in the world. Recently, a Sydney University study showed that one in five Australian workers puts in at least 50 hours a week while, overall, full-time employees work an average of 44 hours per week, placing us near the top of the hours-worked pile among the OECD countries.

Last year, Australians clocked up over 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime. The situation has reached such a fever pitch of activity that, for the past several years, The Australia Institute has nominated a day in late November as National Go Home on Time Day www.gohomeontimeday.org.au . And guess what? Today is the day – 22nd November, 2017.

Of course, once we get home, there’s little likelihood that we’ll be any less busy than we are at work as we rush to complete household chores, to fulfill social engagements and family commitments. Yes, we know what we should be doing: taking time to smell the roses; being aware; living in the present moment

But just what IS a ‘present moment’. Some of the great mystical writers of the Middle Ages sought to quantify the notion because they were concerned with entering wholeheartedly into a contemplative state. They recognised that merely being IN the world was to be in a state of constant distraction, so many of them chose to separate themselves from the distractions by seeking out isolated places where silence could surround them. Others acknowledged that unavoidable and constant distractions were part and parcel of being alive and so tried to work within the limitations. The fourteenth-century Cloud of Unkowning author* took a more lateral view, advising his readers that the work of contemplation was “the shortest work that can be imagined”. For him, that ‘shortest’ time was “no longer or shorter than one athomus”.  To the medieval understanding an athomus was the smallest quantity of time, indivisible and almost incomprehensible. It was approximately equal to one-sixth of a second and, therefore, the Cloud author is speaking of the attainment of the Divine as being virtually instantaneous. It is our modern-day equivalent of finding and experiencing God/Peace/Love in the absolute present, in every moment. The Cloud author further reminds his audience that “[we] shall be asked how all the time given [to us] has been spent … [for] nothing is more precious than time. In one little moment, heaven may be won and lost … [and] time is made for man, not man for time.” That is, the Cloud author stresses the importance of time, the necessity to use it effectively, and the infinite possibilities that time offers in each and every moment.

So, don’t forget to go home early today and, when you get there, take an athomus or two to appreciate all the possibilities of the moment.

 

*The actual author of the mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing is, ironically, unknown; hence he is usually referred to as “the Cloud author”.

 

Only One Book

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I’ve been thinking lately of the books that I couldn’t live without, the books that have inspired my life, fired my imagination, and opened my mind. The list is long and when I engage in the ‘game’ of deciding which five books I’d take to a desert island, I admit that I always find myself extending the list by a book, or two, or twenty. Certainly, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales would be first in the survival pack; then, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations, for its truth and beauty;  the complete works of Shakespeare (yes, I realise this is probably cheating); then, for the magic of the story and the skill of the writing, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet;  and for its sheer genius, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

But what about … ? And ….? And I can’t ignore ….?

This is a game that I always lose and, in my defeat, I’m sometimes drawn to think of those hardy medieval souls who might have possessed only one book for their whole lifetime. Because the production of medieval manuscripts was such a costly and labour-intensive task and the level of literacy so low, few individuals actually owned a book.

I remember, many years ago, in the magnificence of the old British Library  (then in the British Museum),  putting in my request for an original, 13th century manuscript of Ancrene Wisse, a work that I was researching as part of my thesis on medieval religious and mystical writings. When it was finally retrieved (4 hours later) from the ‘backroom depths’, two librarians asked if they could join me at the reading table for a rare ‘look’ at this rare manuscript.  I recall it being a tiny book, about 15 x 15 cms, bound by two pieces of thin, and very fragile wood, back and front, connected by a leather spine. Inside were about sixty pages of yellowed/grey, thick, rough-cut parchment. And on both sides of these pages, written in the cursive of the time, was the ‘guide’ for how an anchoress (subject of a future post) should conduct herself in the anchorhold where she was immured, for life. I realised that this little book had been held and read, probably every day, by a woman who had been locked in a little cell attached to a church; and in this little cell she had lived out her whole adult life. And there she would die, and even be buried there in the ‘in-house’  pre-dug grave (as recent archaeological investigations into anchorholds have revealed). How precious that book must have been to her because it was, most likely, her only book.  How fascinating to me were the signs of fingermarks where she had held the book over many readings. How intoxicating was the smell of the dusty parchment which I, like a Pavlovian dog, responded to by conjuring up the whole scene of the woman sitting and reading in a very dank, dark, and cold purpose-built cell.

For me at that time, having a researcher’s Reader’s Ticket to the British Library was like being a child with unlimited access to a sweet shop. I was able to order up manuscripts I’d only dreamed of.  The illuminated manuscripts  I viewed were breathtaking in the richness of the ink colours and thick gold embossing that adorned each page’s rubric. But, if I could choose only one manuscript to take with me to a desert island, it would be the little, unadorned Ancrene Wisse.

What book would you choose?