Elder Perry: On the Corpus Clock and becoming a goodly parent

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.


  1. This is very moving and I recognize myself in your description of yourself. Thanks very much for sharing this.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    The idea of the chronophage is terrifying and hopeful to me. I appreciate your thoughts, Aaron.

  3. The thing I find missing here is the Atonement. The healing and promises of the Atonement make up for ALL of our pains in this life, not just from our sins or the sins of others.

    Certainly we should all do our best to find the circumstances that bring us closest to the ideals of the gospel. We shouldn’t make purposeful choices to turn our backs on those ideals. That does not mean that prayerfully making choices that do not fall into the “best” category (as seen from the outside) does not mean that the choice is wrong or sinful.

    Even more, I think it is very important that we not judge others for the choices that they make. There are lots of circumstances in anyone’s life, that only the Savior can understand and judge. As individuals we are responsible for making the best choices we can, but we can’t control what our possible choices are.

    I don’t know what your specific circumstances are, Aaron, but I know that whatever they are, Christ is aware of you and your family. He knows what you need, and he has the ability to make you whole, no matter what choices or circumstances come into your life.

  4. Steve and J., thank you for your comments.

    J., I would be interested to hear why you find the chronophage hopeful?

    julia, I have expressed that sentiment to others as well but it has become less convincing to me over time. In trying to write a response I have almost written a blogpost and so will probably write it up. I am not dismissing you, so please do not feel that way, just give me a bit of time to formally respond.

  5. Love the metaphor and honest takeaway. I relate and your writing has given me a memorable extra boost. Preachy replies– not so much.

  6. Aaron,

    It would be interesting to look at our lives in time lapse photography, so to speak. I have only recently started to feel the healing of the Atonement, and do for years I thought it really only applied to me being forgiven for my own sin. Since the vast majority of the pain and sorrow in my life has come because of other’s choice (some bad choices, and some wicked and purposely damaging) I always assumed that the loneliness, isolation, self loathing and pain, was simply my cross to bear in this life. It is only in the last few years that I have come to believe Christ, (that he can and will heal all wounds/damage) instead of just believing in Christ, (that He exists and is the Savior of the world who can forgive our sins if we are appropriately penitent) and that he lived.

    If you are interested in doing the post from two perspectives, let me know. The email on my log-in is checked most days, at lease twice.

  7. Now I need to go find the chronophage.

  8. I lived a block away from that clock this summer and it really can be haunting (especially late at night/early in the morning, when no one is paying attention to it/there aren’t groups of tourists taking pictures). Thank you for sharing your perspective on it.
    J., I second the interest in hearing how the chronophage could be hopeful.

  9. Jessica, we can walk past at lunch.

    Anne, are you still in Cambridge area?

  10. And what happens when you die beforetimes and God takes away even Skype?

  11. I find myself pondering similar things lately. I got divorced last year and my children are still small. I am blessed that their father still wants to be a part of their life and they get to spend a fair amount of time with him. But at the same time I also worry about the irregularity of my time with them, the fact that they are not always under my influence, and that it can be hard for us to do those things you mentioned like regular scripture study. Their father is in many ways a good father and does not interfere with their church attendance, but he is no longer a member. I know the good of having their father in their lives far outweighs many other things, but it is hard to deal with the fact that my children are no longer present with me all the time in the way they used to be. Many weekends I inhabit a weird place of being a parent without children and I completely understand your remark about the part of yourself that becomes unreal without them.

  12. Thanks for this, Aaron. Hope Cambridge is treating you well.

  13. J. Stapley says:

    A little late coming back. Regarding the hopefulness of the chronophage. While I see the chronophage literally consuming us (hence the terror), it is also consuming the past of ourselves (hence the hope), even if the present bleeds for it.