I was up before sunrise to take pictures from a bluff overlooking the Connecticut River not far from my house. I brought a camera and tripod to take a long-exposure panoramic shot of the river just as the sun was coming up over a fringe of trees on the opposite shore. Tramping through the woods on the way back home, I found myself humming “Frère Jacques,” a song I had not sung or even thought about since French class in junior high school. The same few lines played over and over in my head:
Sonnez les matines, sonnez les matines,
Ding, dang, dong! Ding, dang, dong!
I learned long ago that obsessive refrains like this were sometimes my mind’s way of signaling a message from my unconscious. So what was I trying to tell myself? The song refers to church bells that are rung to summon the faithful to morning prayers. Frère Jacques, or Brother John, the monk charged with ringing the bells, has apparently overslept. I realized as I made my way back home that it was about seven o'clock, the traditional hour for morning prayers, or matins, in the daily cycle of prayers practiced by clerical and monastic orders since antiquity. The song I had been humming was a wake-up call, and I was Frère Jacques.
Western religions have long sought to sanctify time by setting aside specified periods for prayer. This began with the Jewish Sabbath on the seventh day of each week to observe the day on which the Lord rested from his labors in creating the world. Priests in the Temple were also commanded to make ritual sacrifices each morning and evening, which evolved into offering prayers at set times every day. These practices were incorporated into the early life of the Christian church and later developed by the monastic orders into an elaborate round of daily prayers known as the canonical hours. For many centuries the call to prayer has been rung eight times throughout the day and at wider intervals during the night.
The bells are a reminder that life unfolds within a framework that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel refers to as “the architecture of time.” In the biblical creation story, time begins when God summons light from darkness, calling them day and night and setting them in motion. A landscape photographer must always be attuned to the play of light and darkness in the natural world, since that is his subject. His world is not cloistered, and there are usually no bells to summon him to prayer. But at its best, his work becomes a form of prayer.
In sanctifying our hours and days, by whatever means, we are anchoring time in the still wider framework of eternity. Eternity is not timelessness but rather the still space in which time is contained, along with everything that transpires in time. The canonical hours are an invitation to plant oneself in this wider space, to be reminded that we are in the world but not of it. Eternity is not grasped in the passage of time but in a single moment that opens before us like a revelation. There is no longer past or future, but only right now, and the realization that “right now” is all there is.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath