Beliefnet

Oddly enough, the early Christian monks, who needed to keep track of their regimen of work and prayer in order to keep their thoughts on heaven, invented a forerunner of our Filofax and Palm Pilot.

In the early years of the Christian era, an ascetic strain manifested itself in Christianity. As early as A.D. 110, some people took vows of chastity and abstinence, withdrawing from society to live lives of prayer and devotion. These people would gather together for weekly pre-Sabbath vigils, a practice that became the ancestor of the divine monastic offices formulated in the West in the fifth century by Benedict of Nursia.

Like the earliest monks, Benedict set out to be a hermit, retiring to a cave at Subiaco, Italy. When followers came, Benedict fled to Monte Cassino, but so many people went with him that he capitulated and founded a monastic community, for which he wrote his famous the Rule of St. Benedict.

The life of the Rule was austere. In the middle of the night, a bell rang to wake the monks, who rose silently and assembled in the chapel for prayers known as vigils. Following this, they practiced meditation, memorizing the book of psalms until matins, the predawn prayer. After matins, they spent three hours reading the Bible or works by the church fathers. Psalms and prayers were chanted at regular intervals known as prime and terce, after which the monks performed manual labor, either in the fields or in the scriptorium. At noon and then later in the afternoon, they convened for prayer again. Only then, more than nine hours after sunrise, did the monks have their first meal of the day. Next they read until vespers, or evening prayer, which began about a half hour before sunset. After a short time, the day ended with compline, the night prayer, a few hours before the vigils bell rang to begin the cycle again.

This packed schedule resembles that of a busy executive today, but the Rule was surprisingly flexible. For starters, the monks' "hours" were not regular 60-minute hours. Instead, they were variable periods arrived at by dividing the daily cycle of daylight and darkness into 12 parts.

Living by "sun time," monks experienced the day as longer or shorter depending on the season and never fell into the modern tedium of rising exactly at a certain hour and minute regardless of the time of year. The long nights of winter gave the monks extra sleep at night, and the Rule provided for a two-hour nap during the long afternoons of summer.

Living by Benedict's Rule, the community stayed attuned to the larger rhythms of nature and to the timeless rhythm of eternity. Perhaps this is why the Benedictine way of life spread so widely and quickly. The Rule allowed the monks to keep their attention on God without having to worry about what needed to be done next. The day unfolded in a formal, though not rigid, way, and the liturgical year carried the monks through cycles of life and death.

So how did this attitude of temporal nonchalance lead to the Filofax? Essentially it began when the monks invented the clock.

The Rule called for the brothers to arise in the middle of the night, but how could they be sure they were getting up at the proper hour? The period between sunset and sunrise varied every night, so when, exactly, was the middle of it? The early monks tried a variety of techniques to figure this out. They watched the stars, turned hourglasses, used water clocks, counted off the marks on special candles, or recited a certain number of prayers until it was time to wake up for Vigil. Around the year 1200, the Benedictine monks finally developed a mechanism--the verge escapement--and attached it to a bell-ringing device. Thus the first alarm clock was born. After that, the "hour" became a fixed unit rather than a flexible one--always the same, day and night, winter and summer.

By 1400, clock hours had replaced the older way of reckoning time. With their invention of the mechanical clock, the Benedictines became the first humans to devise a system of telling time not directly related to the cycle of nature. The relationship between time-keeping and celestial motion or the change of seasons quickly became too abstract to be noticed anymore, and very subtly clock time came to have an existence of its own.

The rage for clocks took hold of late medieval society. The clock came to dominate civic life, being mounted on public squares, often smack in the middle of a church facade so that the church, which should have been a haven from the temporal world, became the building toward which the community looked to find out what time it was. Thus, the canonical hours of the church became the profane hours of civic life and found their way into our Franklin Planners.

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