The Concept of Time in the Medieval World View
By Orlanda S.H. Lie
Janus at the millennium, eds. Thomas F. Shannon and Johan P. Snapper (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004)
Introduction: Once upon a time a monk left his monastery for a walk in the cloister garden. He had often been pondering the meaning of eternity and heavenly bliss and had frequently prayed to God, asking him for an illustration of one moment of heavenly bliss. All of a sudden he heard the lovely song of a little bird, perched on the branch of a tree. He stopped to listen and enjoyed his song until the bird flew away. When he returned to the monastery, he was greeted by a porter, whom he had never seen before. “Who are you?” the porter asked. “I am a monk of this monastery,” he answered. “I stepped out for a little walk in the garden.” But strangely enough, he couldn’t find anybody there who looked familiar to him. But not only the people seemed different, somehow the whole place had changed. The monk was utterly confused and did not know what to make of it. When they asked him who the abbot was of the monastery, and whether he could name some of his fellow-monks, he provided them with the names of people none of them knew.
Finally they decided to consult the annals of the monastery. To their amazement they discovered that the monk was referring to people who lived more than three hundred years ago. Moreover, there was also an entry that registered the strange disappearance of a monk who left the monastery one day and never came back… And at that moment the monk understood what had happened. This was God’s way of answering his prayer: the pleasure he derived from listening to the bird’s song was God’s way of giving him a foretaste of the timelessness of heavenly bliss. If the beautiful song of this little bird was already enough to make him forgetful of the time, how intensely more pleasurable and never-ending must then be the joy of heavenly bliss in the after life!
To appreciate the concept of time that underlies this exemplary tale, we must turn to the teachings of the influential medieval Church father of the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo, concerning the subject of time. In his De civitate dei (The City of God), he tells us that the creation of time is inherent with God’s creation of the world: before creation time did not exist. The distinguishing mark between time and eternity is that the former does not exist without some movement and change, while in the latter there is no change at all.
In his Confessiones Augustine addresses himself again to the issue of time and acknowledges the complexity of finding a good definition:
What, then, is time? I know well enough wat it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled. All the same I can confidently say that I know that if nothing passed, there would be no past time; if nothing were going to happen, there would be no future time; and if nothing were, there would be no present time.