On the Northwest corner of Corpus Christi college in Cambridge, England there is a strange looking contraption. A gold-plated and stainless steel disk, about 1.5 metres (4.9ft) in diameter, sits in front of the Taylor library and glares across at the Porter’s lodge of Kings College. It is, in fact, a clock; although it has neither hands or numbers. It displays the time by opening tiny slits in the clock face which are backlit with blue LEDs; these slits are arranged in three concentric circles denoting hours, minutes, and seconds.
Yet, this is not what is most striking about the clock. Rather the dominating feature is a macabre metal sculpture of an insect, something akin to a locust or perhaps a grasshopper, which sits on top of the clock. Although somewhat symbolic, this insect is not merely cosmetic, for it is the clock’s escapement (the mechanical device which transfers energy to the timekeeping element).
It was officially unveiled by Stephen Hawking in 2008 and was conceived and funded by the inventor John Taylor. Taylor called the insect the Chronophage, which apparently means ‘time eater’. The insect both consumes time and moves it forward. When the clock strikes the hour it rattles a chain inside a hidden, wooden coffin and it is only accurate once every five minutes. Below the clock there is an inscription from the Vulgate of 1 John 2.17: “the world passeth away, and the lust thereof”.
From September I have been living away from where my wife and children live, and as a consequence I cycle past this clock everyday on the way to work. Although somewhat embarrassing, I should admit that, since moving away, it has surprised me how much I have missed my wife and children. There is particular part of myself which seems to become unreal when they are not an embodied presence in my life. We try to talk over skype every night and I try to read to them (we just finished William Steig’s ‘Rotten Island, ht: SteveP) but there is a sense of loss which permeates my days. It is not overwhelming but there are moments when I have been surprised by my sadness.
As I read Elder Perry’s words, I felt that I was far from being a ‘goodly parent’ . When he speaks of the importance of lessons learned in the family, I believe him. When speaks of the security offered through a loving parent, I believe him. And yet, I feel so incapable of offering that security or those lessons when I am so absent from them. Luckily my separation will not be all that long but there are others who experience this kind of absence quite regularly. Those who work awkward shift patterns or who travel a great deal must struggle to find ways of being a permanent presence in the home. It must be a constant challenge for such families to meet around the dinner table, or to hold family council, or to read the scriptures at dedicated time. Their lives suffer from an irregularity that could cultivates a feeling of moving along separate paths which only sporadically intersect. They might feel constrained by circumstances beyond their control and I wonder how hard it must be to yearn for something else. If I am honest, however, my circumstance is not like this but I have been guilty of trying to draw this comparison.
In fact, it this self-pity which illuminates my unhealthy relationship with the ‘time-eater’. I have felt, at times, haunted by the persistent irregularity of the Corpus clock as it eats away at the little time I have in this world. It has been something to fight against; an externalised enemy. Something outside of myself and somewhat beyond my control. On reflection, and with the aid of Elder Perry, I have seen something else in that clock. The escapement, the driving mechanism which both consumes time and moves it onward, is not some metallic representation of an objective, ‘real’ time which is my enemy but it is a symbol of the vanity of my own heart. Those lusts distract me and they consume my time. Not only this, but those lusts of my heart are never satisfied because they emerge from a form of desiring that is, ultimately, insatiable.
Elder Perry’s words have helped me sense the struggles that some families must face in providing security and protection in difficult economic circumstances. But he has also allowed me to see that, in my present circumstance, this ‘time-eater’ is nothing but my own vanity.