The Clock, Secular Culture and the Noontime Demon

The Clock, Secular Culture and the Noontime Demon May 15, 2011
An earlier post spoke of the importance of the constructed nature of how we in the Body of Christ look at time. We are, as Stephen Kepnes once mentioned, victims of “Scientific” clock time, where time is seen as a string of repeatable units of measure, completely devoid of meaning. The net effect of this conception of time is that is becomes possible to conceive of an endless string of clocked moments, which is crucial to assist a culture obsessed with control to maintain supervision of historical events.
Modern culture, and the cultural condition of postmodernity, thus becomes the institutionalisation of what Evagrius of Pontus called the “noontime demon” in The Praktikos, in which it “seems that the sun barely moves…and the day is fifty hours long”. Because each Modern clock moment is a freezing of the dynamism of history, the stringing out of these moments only becomes a repetitious stream of frozen and empty units of measure. The experienced reality of this is best articulated by the reflections of the American poet Kathleen Norris, who describes the “noontime demon” as something that “suggests that…my entire life of ‘doings’ is not only meaningless but utterly useless”.
This secular phenomenon of clock time thus also institutionalises the robbing of one’s willingness to experience true joy, which is something that only a God that transcends clock time can give. It should not be surprising then that secular culture is thus marked by what Michael Hanby calls “an ontology of boredom”. It is this refusal to experience joy, more than sheer laziness, which is the what Evenlyn Waugh calls the malice of the sin of sloth. As he writes in The Seven Deadly Sins, laziness is only a symptom of Sloth, whilst its true nature lies in its “alli[ance] to despair”.
The response to this is a new conception of time, which for Kathleen Norris, was found in the Benedictine liturgy of the hours. This observation is important for the Christian, for the string of liturgies is not a freezing of time in a single moment, and the commodification of time by evacuating it of meaning. The string of liturgies rather institutionalises a renewal of the historical inbreaking of God, who is the true engine of the liturgical prayers. Instead of the secular freezing and repetition of time, a kind of secular Kairos, the Christian Kairos is one where the moment is renewed and infused with God’s interruption of the despair of history. To paraphrase the prayers at the foot of the altar during the Tridentine Mass, Godturns to us and brings us back to life so that we may rejoice. It fills the moment with meaning, and instead of being merely repeated, as in secular time, each renewal in the Christian Kairos is a unique episode of God making all things new.

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  • I read Abraham Heschel's “The Sabbath” recently and can really recommend it Matt. The Jewish notional of sacral time and its significance is a real mind blow. Yes, we have to think more about time; we do live under its tyranny when it is not sacral.