Counterclockwise: Keeping an Open Door in a Timekept City

Counterclockwise: Keeping an Open Door in a Timekept City

Photo by Skyler Fike |

The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence

—T.S. Eliot, Choruses from “The Rock”

8:42 a.m. Orange line to Vienna: 1 minute. I rushed down the metro escalator managing an unsteady collection of chirping electronics and personal effects. The train pulled into the station just as I rounded the corner, slipped, and made full contact with the platform. My travel mug rolled against the cabin in a wake of Sumatra, while my keys slid into the tracks.  

Ironically, I wasn’t even late that morning. I was rushing because all commuters rush. Rushing seemed like the right thing to do.    

My home is Capitol Hill, where time moves in light-years, fueled by the news cycle and the congressional session. The Metro Station is a microcosm of the fervor. Commuters scurry down the platforms, risking their lives to squeeze through blind and unforgiving sliding doors, even if another train is only minutes away. Woe to the unwitting tourist who stands on the “walk” side of the escalator. Prepare for glares and a forceful chorus of “excuse me”s. Washington is not a welcoming city during rush hour.

In fact, the pace of city life is unwelcoming most of the time. Busyness, urgency, and distraction prey on the practice of hospitality, consuming both the time and inner health of the practitioner. Protecting the spiritual discipline of hospitality, as well the prayer and solitude that underwrite it, means creating counter-rhythms strong enough to tame the timepiece. Above all, it means remembering that time is a gift, not a currency.    

Thousands travel daily to the timekept City, where My Word is unspoken.

—T.S. Eliot, Choruses from “The Rock”

Modernity views time as a commodity, a collection of calculable and divisible moments to be regimented and maximized. In Technics and Civilization, American historian and philosopher Lewis Mumford discusses the addition of the clock to modern life during the 16th century:

The new bourgeoisie were the first to discover that, as Franklin later put it, “time is money.” To become “as regular as clockwork” was a bourgeois ideal, and to own a watch was for long a definite symbol of success. The increasing tempo of civilization led to a greater demand for power: and in turn, power quickened the tempo.1

The mechanical clock, first introduced in Benedictine monasteries to regulate the hours of prayer, was perhaps the true starting point of the industrial age. Timekeeping exchanged the imprecise rhythms of an agrarian world, sunrise and sunset, feeding and milking, planting and harvest, for autonomous, mathematical regularity. It was a boon for business, enabling one to promise and deliver products at an exact time.

But the invention of the clock also had unintended consequences. Time became a currency: trafficked, not received. We make time, save time, spend time, waste time. Particularly in urban centers, managing time becomes a contest of “how much, how fast?” Virtue lies in maximizing the content or experiences that may be produced or consumed in a given period. A packed schedule conveys significance because the subject is both productive and necessary. “‘Being busy’ has become a status symbol,” says Henri Nouwen, “and most people keep encouraging each other to keep their body and mind in constant motion.”2 This is the “timekept” life having, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “knowledge of motion but not of stillness, knowledge of speech, but not of silence.”

Timekept lives are not unique to big cities. Growing up in a hardworking German Protestant family in southern Minnesota, my father experienced firsthand the overemphasis on motion. Stillness meant laziness. Stillness meant you weren’t producing anything of value. Dorothy Bass captures this mindset well in Receiving the Day:

Often called the “Protestant ethic,” this attitude holds that work and worthiness go hand in hand, not only in human eyes, but in God’s. This label is incongruous since the Protestant movement actually began with the insistence that God’s favor is a free gift. Such a gift can seem too good to be true, whether we are Protestants or not, and many of us try to attract God’s favor by putting our virtue and hard work on display.3

The good of work becomes the god of work. Transactions replace gifts. The logical conclusion of the “Protestant ethic,” although not unique to Protestantism, is a world without grace.

The timekept life operates in a world of scarcity. With so few hours in a day, we have to prioritize relationships and activities that are highest yield. Even when it is enjoyable to the host, practicing hospitality requires a great deal of energy and resources. The return on the investment is usually intangible, and in a temporal economy, less desirable.  

The timekept life leaves little room for the unexpected. It is chaotic to welcome a last-minute guest when six of your seven evenings are booked. The church often contributes to this problem, crowding out organic life between members with formal programming. While there is no less virtue in having planned guests, not all opportunities keep a normal workweek.

The timekept life also disrupts the presence of mind required to notice these opportunities, because we are moving too quickly to see, or perpetually anticipating the next thing. Technology, for all its virtues, further muddies the waters, blurring the lines between work and home, night and day. In the words of pastor Aubrey Spears, “technology turns time into a swamp . . . with laptops and smartphones, life is becoming so portable we are losing all sense of boundaries.”

A timekept life affects the actual experience of hospitality, such that the host feels the need to fill silence with words and activities. Entertainment replaces life together. This is exhausting for both the host and the guest. Nouwen says:

From a distance, it appears that we try to keep each other filled and words and actions without tolerance for a moment of silence. Hosts often feel that they have to talk all the time to their guests and entertain them with things to do, places to see and people to visit. But by filling up every empty corner and occupying every empty time their hospitality becomes more oppressing than revealing.4

Most seriously, a timekept life crowds out the prayer, solitude, and life-giving rhythms that underwrite the practice of hospitality. The health of the inner life radically affects the shape of the outer life. We cannot enjoy fellowship with others, nor meet their needs, when our own spiritual needs are unmet. Life in community then becomes an end in itself, and distraction from our own loneliness, as we try to live vicariously through the spiritual lives of others.  

How can we keep an open door in the timekept city?

1. We can leave room for the unexpected. If we fill every spare moment of our lives, we won’t be free to welcome unexpected guests or have the energy to care for them. Leaving unstructured time is a counter-cultural act, which faithfully anticipates God’s future work through broken vessels. It may mean blocking off a few evenings a week or creating a margin between commitments. It almost certainly means saying “no” to a lot of good things. Far from the glorification of spontaneity or “leaving your options open,” this practice makes ourselves available for divine encounters. A late-night conversation. Another plate at dinner. Three strangers by the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18).

2.We can practice presence of mind. Fewer commitments allow us to be more present where we are. Even so, technology remains one of the greatest obstacles to presence of mind. Unless it is an imminent responsibility, the simple practice of keeping the cell phone stowed during conversations protects mental boundaries and is a tremendous show of respect to guests. This is not to say that technology is a curse but that using it well requires tremendous discipline and moderation.

3.We can allow stillness and silence with others. Hospitality is life together, not just dinner and a show. Allowing stillness and silence not only preserves the energy of the host but makes room for guests to let down their guard and be at peace. This is especially important for hosts and guests who primarily draw their energy from being alone instead of being with others.

4.We can follow life-giving rhythms. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” The author of Ecclesiastes speaks to the natural ebb and flow of time, night and day, labor and Sabbath, fast and feast, retreat and return. Christ himself frequently escaped the crowds for extended periods of prayer. So too practitioners of hospitality must first learn to pause and rest in the hospitality of God. This means there are times when we don’t have guests. Resting on the Sabbath, establishing daily fixed-hour prayers, and even taking regular retreats (as opposed to action-packed vacations), give humane boundaries to the “swamp” of time and restore our inner health.

5.We can remember that time is a gift. Indeed, time is a gift from the Author of Time. The divine economy gives us the freedom to commit to activities and relationships that seem unprofitable to the world around us. Stopping to help a bewildered tourist, waiting patiently in slow lines, or opening your couch to an apartment-hunting newcomer — these all require a posture of gratitude to the God who has given us all things. All the while, we await the glorious extravagance of time in eternity, where the currency is doxology and the feast never ends.

Recommended Reading:

The Book of Common Prayer

Gift from the Sea, chapter 2: “Channeled Whelk,” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time by Dorothy Bass

Recommended Listening:

Vienna by Billy Joel

Quiet by Catherine Prewitt

Vespers, Bless the Lord, O My Soul by Rachmaninoff

Recommended Visiting:

The Naniboujou Lodge — Grand Marais, Minnesota

Osprey Point — Royal Oak, Maryland

Laity Lodge — Leakey, Texas

With gratitude to pastor Dan Claire at Church of the Resurrection in Washington, D.C., and pastor Aubrey Spears at Church of the Incarnation in Harrisonburg, VA, for their excellent teaching on time, prayer, and life-giving rhythms. Sermon notes available here, here, and here.

1 Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (Orlando, FL: Mariner Books, 1963), 16.

2 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out (London: Fount, 1996), 50.

3 Dorothy C. Bass, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 6.

4 Nouwen, 50.

Canning the Intangible

Revision of the List