“In and Out of Time”
Reverend Elaine Bomford
Sunday, March 11, 2018
Opening Words Thomas Carlyle, 19th c.
That great mystery of Time, were there no other;
the illimitable, silent, never-resting thing called Time,
rolling, rushing on, swift, silent, like an all-embracing ocean tide,
on which we and all the Universe swim like exhalations,
like apparitions which are, and then are not:
this is forever, very literally, a miracle.
Readings and quotations are all drawn from the book from “Man and Time,”
by J. B. Priestley, Aldus Books Limited, London, 1964.
“The Hourglass” p. 34
The hourglass, with its two pear-shaped glass bulbs, was once a
familiar sight on church or chapel pulpits. (Those were the days when
sermons were often of an inordinate length, and we know how the hearts
of younger members of the congregation would sink when they saw the
preacher, who had already used up 60 minutes, reverse the hourglass
for the next 60 minutes.)
Smaller “sand glasses,” as they were often called, have been made to indicate briefer passages of time, and one distant descendant of the
ancient desert sand clocks is still in use – the egg-timer.
There is a story that I told 30 years ago of a very grim Lancashire
widow, who, when asked what she intended to do with her husband’s
ashes, replied that she was having them put into an egg-timer.
“Lazy beggar would never work when we was alive,” she added. “He can do summat now he’s dead.”
“The Grandfather Clock” p. 43 (adapted)
Mechanical clocks arrived at their maturity about the middle of the
18th century. Though the hourglass and its running sand may have
given us the most familiar visual image of passing time, it is these
clocks that have provided us with the most powerful and disturbing
aural image [aural: pertaining to the ear].
This is certainly true for people of my generation, old enough to
have spent at least part of their childhood in the company of
Grandfather Clocks. These never seemed mere mechanisms. They were
not unlike the mysterious and somewhat awe-inspiring distant relatives
or friends of our grandparents who appeared at Christmas or on other
special occasions. These elders seemed half human, half mechanical,
and so did the clocks.
But we saw and heard far more of the clocks. They cleared their
throats, so to speak, before announcing the hours. They seemed to be
keeping an eye on us. Their gravely deliberate tick-tock, tick-tock,
which seemed much louder when we were alone with them, made us wonder
what it was that was being tick-tocked away, made passing time
Moreover, when I was a little boy and my grandmother occasionally
looked after me, she would sing after a fashion a popular
mid-Victorian music hall song (though I cannot believe she learned it
in a music hall) about a grandfather clock which stopped “never to go
again, when the old man died.” And this symbiotic behavior did not
surprise me, just because I felt that these clocks had no mere
mechanical existence, that they shared in their tall wooden fashion
some kind of life, half-human, perhaps belonging to gnomes and trolls,
and so might have developed sympathy and affection for some of their
ancient owners, even though their attitude toward me was suspicious
Time might seem to spread before me like Genghis Khan’s empire, but
certain doubts were ticked, certain warnings tocked, and that
throat-clearing before the hour was struck could be ominous.
Besides, the grandfather clock I knew best showed me a ship in full
sail, before a stiff breeze, but not going anywhere. All of which may
help to explain why, 60 years later, an elderly writer resolved to
forget his lack of qualifications and began to write a book on Man and
Time is a huge topic. It’s with us every moment of our lives, every
step of the way. When we stop to try to find a true description of
Time, a Grand Canyon of notions about it opens up.
Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon? The canyon presents a depth
and expanse of view so amazing, one is filled with awe. There is no
other word for it. Have you been to the Grand Canyon? The idea of
Time inspires an awe comparable to that of the Grand Canyon. Still,
we will tackle it for the next 12 minutes or so.
What does Time mean for us?
Is it the circle of the seasons? Or could Time be more accurately
described as a spiral?
I recall visiting a store called the Tick Tock Jewelers, specializing
in timepieces. The cases in the place held watches, some with gems
sparkling around the circumference of their faces -- is that time?
Have you ever had a job where you have to “punch in” on a time clock?
What do we call that experience of time?
Think of how long the summer days felt when you were a kid and was
the first Monday of summer vacation. And how long until we get there,
Dad? How many days until Christmas?
How brief is a butterfly’s life?
How many light years away is a star?
This book, "Man and Time," will be our guide into Time today. It was
on the bookshelves of my childhood home, and I first picked it up to
look at the fascinating pictures and, later, to read. In it, J.B.
“It is one of the peculiarities of Time that it is intensely private
and yet also widely shared. We could put it like this: That
superficially, in the world of clocks and watches and appointments, we
share Time; then, on a deeper level, it seems intensely private; and
then, on a still deeper level, perhaps we begin to share it again, in
ways we cannot yet fully understand.” [p. 276-7]
John Boynton Priestley was born in Yorkshire, England in 1894. He
quit school at 16, and went to work in the wool trade in his hometown
of Bradford. He bought books with his wages and wrote articles and
poems which were printed in the local and then in the London papers -
and from these beginnings he went on to write over 150 published
works, many articles and columns.
Priestley volunteered for military service in 1914. He fought in the
trenches and survived the front lines in Flanders. He was wounded
several times. In 1917, he was severely gassed.
“I was lucky in that war,” he said, “and have never ceased to be aware of that fact.”
After the war, he completed studies at Cambridge and continued his
work as a journalist, essayist, playwright and, eventually, a theatre
producer. In June, 1940, Priestley entered radio broadcasting as the
presenter of a BBC program. It was estimated that around 40 per cent
of the adult population in Britain tuned in to his weekly program. He
inspired folks by reflecting on the beauties of the English landscape,
and gave them courage during the war with phrases like “a steaming pie
in a shop window defying the bombers.” Priestley also called for
social change after the War, so the mistakes made following World War
I and the poor treatment of the returning soldiers would not be
repeated. Some members of the Conservative Party complained that he
expressed left-wing views, and his program was canceled.
He said at that time "... We're fighting not merely to keep the
German jack-boot off our necks but also to...bring into existence an
order of society in which nobody will have far too many rooms in a
house and nobody have far too few." He advocated for public ownership
of land, railways, mines, docks, and a national wage.
In 1957, he wrote an article which catalyzed a new movement, The
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Priestley wrote
“In plain words: now that Britain has told the world that she has the
H-Bomb she should announce as early as possible that she has done with
it, that she proposes to reject in all circumstances nuclear
warfare....Alone we defied Hitler and alone we can defy this nuclear
Priestley’s own interest in the subject of time was, perhaps, sparked
by that grandfather clock of his youth. It was deepened by
experiences of time’s fluidity that he had in the course of his life.
In introducing the subject of time, he said:
“Time is not a thing in actual existence with qualities and
attributes....I realize that Time is a concept abstracted from our
unavoidable acquaintance with succession and all our befores and
afters. I regard [Time] as a condition of our experience; and if I
refer, as I certainly will, to different times, I am referring to
different temporal conditions for different kinds of experience.”
Priestley grounds his study in human experience. He says we have
different experiences of time. Cultures shape our experience of time
in distinctive ways. Individuals also have varied experiences of
time. Time “flows,” if it may be said to flow, faster during some
experiences, and slower during others. In some stretches, Time seems
to disappear or stop altogether; we can have experiences where Time
doubles back on itself, or seems to leap ahead.
But Time is more than the river flowing. It is the banks and canyons
through which the river flows, too. In this sense, Time embraces both
change, and that which endures.
Priestley wrote: “Change itself...does not give us Time. Suppose we
found ourselves in a mad world.... A sun like ours rises and sets and
there is darkness; then three blue suns follow one another across the
sky; then there is a lot of darkness, finally dispelled by a colossal
double sun that glares and glares at us until we are sick of it; then
a twilight into which six multicolored moons arise; and so it goes on,
the scene forever changing, without repetition or rhythm. Even in
such a world, of course, somebody could say, ‘We met when there were
those three blue suns, remember?’ so that some faint notion of time
would be struggling through. But it would be a very dim and distorted
notion, not our Time at all.
For Time as we know it,” he continues, “we need both change and
not-change, some things moving and others apparently keeping still,
the stream flowing and its banks motionless. ...One philosopher tells
me that all is flux, nothing remaining the same, but how can he know
this? If everything is changing, including himself, how can he know
that anything is changing?” (p. 64)
As we experience time, we undergo change; but our experiences in time
may also reveal true meaning and foster lasting connections. These
are the banks of the river -- the regularities which do not change.
Looking at the changing and unchanging aspects of time in human
experience, Priestley provides a sweeping survey of time through the
centuries. Most interesting to me as I thumbed through this book as a
youngster were the “dream letters.”
Priestley recounts: “I had been interviewed, about this book I am
writing on Man and Time, on the BBC television program “Monitor,” a
late Sunday night program chiefly concerned with the arts. At the end
of our talk, the interviewer had appealed on my behalf to viewers to
send me accounts of any experiences they had had that appeared to
challenge the conventional and “common-sense” idea of Time.
The response was so immediate and so generous that my secretary and I
spent days and days opening letters, then hurriedly glancing through
them, as a first step, to sort them out into...categories...” [p.
This dream letter he received, illustrating the category of
precognitive dreams (a dream of something we know before it happens)
is a favorite: “A man writes to tell me about a precognitive dream he
had in his youth, about discovering a blackbird’s nest with three eggs
in it, and how, on a walk the next afternoon, something about the lane
he was in reminded him of his dream, and then a few yards further on
he found the nest and the three eggs.”
An interesting conclusion Priestley draws, on the basis of this
correspondence, his own experiences and study, concerns the subject
matter of precognitive dreams and visions:
“At one extreme,” he writes, “the deaths and disasters, found in so
many of these dreams, come crashing through, events so huge and grave
that they seem far out of our reach and control. They will happen,
and we cannot stop them happening. But this is equally true of the
dreams and waking events at the other extreme, where all that is
discovered in advance, plucked out of the future, is the sight of a
certain sunlit beach or an unusual cafe, some tiny adventure with a
toy or a stuffed bird. These too will happen, and we cannot stop them
happening, but now it is because they are so small, incidental,
unimportant....We have most foreknowledge of those two borderlands,
terrible or trivial, where we plan the least.” [p. 239]
This is because, Priestley proposes, in the mid-range of activities,
neither trivial nor traumatic, we may exert the most willpower and the
future is less certain.
As I read the book through in later life, the following passage,
concerning his youth and time in the trenches, stayed with me: [pp.
284 - 287]
“Now long before I had considered any evidence for precognition and
the rest, long before I had read anything about multi-dimensional
Time, I had felt a strong resistance to the idea of our being entirely
contained by linear, passing time. It was like being forced into a
mental strait-jacket. To accept the idea was to reject thoughts and
feelings that, however vague they might be, seemed to light up and
liberate the mind....
What I did believe is that we knew nothing for certain, and that it
was better to live between gay tapestries of half-beliefs and fancies
than between the iron walls of ‘facts’ that might not even be
true....I half-believed in a good deal of nonsense, and I still have
some notebooks of my teens to prove it. All this was before the First
War, when I was a junior clerk in the Yorkshire wool trade. Some of
my more fantastic half-beliefs, I suspect, were there to defy the wool
trade. But then I left it, in 1914, to join the army as an
Life in the infantry on the Western Front was capable of squeezing
and hammering all the nonsense and fancifulness out of a man. If
living hard and dangerously tests a man’s notions, then mine were
severely tested. So what remained was something quite different from
those prewar half-beliefs and fancywork.
There was, for example, the feeling (without any theory attached to it)
that on some occasions we slipped out of passing time, became detached observers
of our fortunes, with death approaching in slow motion, as if we were in some
other time. Then again, there were those men, lively gossipers and
wags, who became subdued and thoughtful some hours before the sniper’s
bullet found them or the shell tore their bodies to...shreds – as if
they had been watching, throughout a whole morning, death pointing a
finger at them across No Man’s Land. These men’s familiar moods
changed completely, we might say, because at the back of their minds a
Now had opened hugely so that it was already being darkened by an
event that was to take place, in passing time, some hours
And this does not contradict and cancel out that sudden detachment at
the high point of danger that others of us felt, as if we looked on
from some other time. True, our Now narrowed to the finest possible
point, and then opened out, to set things seemingly in slow motion,
into another time. The difference - and a difference that perhaps
cannot be fully explored by the human intellect - was that these men
were going to die and we were going to live.
In this strange region,” he recounts, “far removed from ordinary
routine existence and its prevailing ideas, a region of hard living
and danger and death, I noticed...that Time played many tricks. It
refused to be true to form. It did not adapt itself to the ‘facts.’
....Perhaps in jungles and deserts, on high seas and
battlefields...the certainties fade, the facts turn awkward, and Time
plays its tricks.”
The human experience of time in warfare, and the experience of time
in giving birth, for that matter, indicate that there is more to our
experience of time than simple, linear, chronological time. Embracing
this natural, experiential truth opens a path for meaning to come into
I conclude with an anecdote from Priestley concerning a moment in
time that might be like some moments you have experienced too, in your
own life circumstances:
“Though I have now forgotten in what city I was, I remember coming to
a halt outside a fine large fish shop. As I stared at the scales and
fins and the round eyes, looking indignant even in death, I lost
myself and all sense of passing time in a vision of fishiness itself,
of all the shores and seas of the world, of the mysterious depths and
wonder of oceanic life. This vision was not in any way related to
myself: My ego was lost in it. And real poets, I suppose, must be
always enjoying such selfless and timeless visions. They come to me
only rarely: It might be from the sigh of something, like those
fishes gleaming on the marble, or after I had heard somebody merely
say “France” or “Italy,” or from simply reading the words “eighteenth
century”; but they brought me at once a feeling for the immense
variety, richness, and wonder of life on this earth. This feeling was
deep and joyful but did not belong to ecstatic mystical experience,
though it was nearly as far removed from the flat and stale acceptance
of everything we find among so many people now....Our consciousness
dwells among many dimensions.” (p. 289)
Let us give thanks for our times together, the wonders of experience,
for questions, and for wise guides among us. AMEN
Closing Words The Hebrew Bible, Ecclesiastes, 3.1
“To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”
Time is a river without banks.