Part way into writing Heretics of Piedmont I found myself typing the phrase: “after a few minutes.” I paused, shut my eyes, and doubts entered my mind. That wasn’t the first time I had used a phrase like that, but it felt like I should check into it.
Heretics of Piedmont is set in the 15th century—1458 to be precise. Did people even think in minutes and seconds then? Did numerical time-of-day exist in the common person’s mind? After some study, I found that most people—especially those outside the major cities—only thought of time in relation to the sun’s position in the sky.
From there, I did a quick search of my first draft and found all the places I had used seconds, minutes, and hours. Now, for some styles of fiction writing, especially those with an omniscient narrator, those words would be acceptable outside of dialogue. My story is written from a limited point-of-view narrator, thus using more modern concepts of time would, I felt, take away from the reader’s immersion. I know there’s a lot of writer’s jargon there, but in essence, I needed to remove seconds, minutes, and most cases of hours from my character’s minds.
Thankfully, I was only a few scenes into my first draft, so I only had to correct a handful of instances. The replacements were straightforward enough: minute and second easily transpose to “moment”, while “hour” is better represented by the sun’s position. Yet that wasn’t everything: after several hours of study, my whole concept of time in the Middle Ages was upended.
One place you see this in Heretics of Piedmont is at the start of a Waldensian Sunday gathering. No farmer or mountain peasant had a clock, let alone a watch. How did everyone get to church on time?
I know how long it takes me to drive from my home to my church—fourteen minutes for those who are wondering. I also know that our Sunday School begins at 9:30 in the morning. For my family to be on time, we have to leave by 9:15 at the very latest. Because we have four children, I add plenty of buffer time for getting out of the house and getting everyone to their classes. So, I’m pretty strict about leaving the house at 9:05 or earlier. And any church I’ve been a part of has started right when they say they do. The idea of being late grates me the wrong way; you might say I despise it.
Now, let’s go back to 1458 in Val d’Angrogna. No watches; no clocks; and may I add: no service times—at least not to-the-minute like we have in 2021. Instead, people just knew. On Sundays, like any other day, you woke at first light. You milk the goats, maybe eat a small meal, and walk to your church’s gathering. Everyone shows up about the same time, and the service starts when everyone arrives.
That last point is what I want to emphasize. You start when everyone who’s supposed to be there is present. Starting a song or partaking in communion when someone was running late would’ve been considered rude and uncaring. Today, the opposite is true.
At least in the western culture, we live by our clocks. Every minute is expected to be accounted for. Being consistently late is considered a vice and displays a lack of discipline and character. I didn’t research the modern concept of time in depth, but my presumption is that this came about when clocks became highly precise. During the American Civil War, we synchronized artillery bombardments to the second. Before any major military maneuver, all the officers synchronized their watches. Seconds and minutes were no longer in the abstract; now they determined success or failure on the battlefield. Trains also depended on a consistent schedule, and industrialists paid their laborers based on the exact time they worked. From there, it has only become more an essence of our lives.
Our church services have become the same way. We not only regulate the moment a service starts, but now congregants have a strong expectation of when it’s supposed to end. Ask a pastor how often listeners peak at their watches (or phones), more so as that 60 minute mark approaches. A minute over, and the yawns start. We eat at noon. We turn on the TV at 9:00 in the evening.
Travel back to the 15th century, and I think you’ll find a different sentiment. They started when they were ready, and they finished when enough time had passed. True, that ambiguity seems like it would frustrate a person like me, but I have to ask myself: what might I be missing from that view of time?
Back a few centuries, If I decided to skip a Sunday service, everyone would know—not just the pastor. The whole church would be waiting for my family to be in our place, and if we never showed up, it would be highly inconsiderate to make everyone wait. Today? 9:30 we all start singing, regardless of who’s present. Except for the pastor, most might not even notice we were gone. Of course, I’m not saying we should throw away our church schedule and clocks, but I believe there’s much we can learn from our ancestors.
Slowing down our busyness and clearing our schedule might benefit us as individuals, families, and churches. Also, instead of concerning ourselves with how long a service is, maybe we can ignore our timekeeping devices, and even refrain from craning our neck to glimpse the clock in the back of the auditorium. And before deciding to skip a church service, think of who else we might be affecting.
Modern timekeeping is a wonder, but it’s also something that ancient and medieval Christians lived without and still thrived. Let us use every second, minute, hour, and day for worshipping God. But let not time become our taskmaster.