Brett Robinson

There is a great piece of Catholic kitsch known as the Pope Pius clock. Instead of numbers, it features the faces of 12 popes, all named Pius. At noon, it’s Pope Pius XII and so on.

I have one hanging in my office at Notre Dame. It’s a charming conversation starter, but for some reason it always runs slow.

My smartphone keeps much better time, but I have come to appreciate the pope clock’s quirkiness. When visitors ask if it’s showing the right time, I say no, because the church is always behind the times, right? Joking aside, the languid clock is a good reminder to slow down sometimes.

When I started writing this column back in May, the goal was to air some ideas about the relationship between theology and technology. I can’t think of a more iconic invention than the clock to show the connection between what we create and what we believe and how it shapes our experience in the church.

In some ways, the slow pope clock harkens back to a tradition that began well before mechanical clocks were invented. The early Benedictine monasteries kept the canonical hours for work and prayer, shaping the pace of everyday life in nearby towns and villages. The bells would mark the hours for work and rest, divisions of the day that were adopted by the nearby farmers and merchants.

Relying on sundials and water clocks, the monks had a very fluid sense of time. Nobody seemed to mind if the bells were 10 minutes behind. Then along came the mechanical clock. Believe it or not, the church perceived the new clocks as a threat because they divorced the practice of timekeeping from the rhythms of nature.

No longer governed by the sun’s position or the flow of water, the new mechanical clocks presented time as an abstraction. Man’s standard of time had become the absolute standard, usurping God’s intimate ordering of the heavens.

The issue for the church was not how the clocks kept time but how people thought about time as a result.

In a world where time is broken into uniform units like minutes and seconds, time measures duration rather than the sequence of events that make up our personal experience. According to anthropologist Edward T. Hall, the Hopi Indians did not perceive time as duration but as a variety of natural processes like corn maturing or sheep growing.

In another conception of time, the ancient Japanese measured the passing of time with different types of incense. If you don’t think smell is an effective way to mark time, think of the smells that conjure vivid childhood memories and how they seem to transport you back to a place and time.

The move away from seeing life as an interconnected sequence of events filled with signs of grace to a mechanically driven duration of seconds, minutes and hours filled with alarms and deadlines shapes the imagination at a deep level. Resolving this tension is not a matter of rejecting our technological tools but seeking a revolution in thought.

Revolutions need not be violent or drastic because at root, revolving means a return to something. In our case, returning to the sources of wisdom in the church is helpful for freeing ourselves from some of the habits of thought and perception that new technologies impart.

I like to think that St. Augustine was looking at his sundial when he wrote in his “Confessions” that time is not ultimately tied to the movement of material bodies but is made up of one eternal present.

Yes, it is filled with memories of the past and expectations of the future, but it is anchored in this instant that is happening right now, an eternal moment encompassing past, present and future.

So when the pope clock slows to a stop and no longer traces the hours, it won’t be time to get a new clock. It can be a welcome reminder of the eternal present.

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Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.