To Pisa on a Magic Carpet by Canon Jim Foley

To Pisa on a Magic Carpet by Canon Jim Foley

‘There is a season for everything

and a time for every occupation under heaven’

Ecclesiasticus 3.1

By Canon Jim Foley

Each morning on my way from the presbytery to the Church I find myself transported, as if by magic carpet, to the Italian City of Pisa and travel back in time some four hundred years.  It is only a matter of a few yards but, as I leave the house, I check the time on an Industrial Work’s Clock that stands guard at the sacristy door, a gentle reminder to all who pass that way that time flies. The clock used to stand in the Time-Office of one of the heavy industries at Parkhead Forge in Glasgow, long since gone. I snapped it up for a pittance in a junk shop.I suppose I was attracted by the wonderful late-Victorian workmanship. The fine oak cabinet has done well to survive the smog of the city and the heavy hands of the workers clocking in and out day after day for sixty years and more. The occasional rub down with a cloth steeped in vinegar seems to have done the trick.

The clock itself is still able to do everything it was designed to do when it was made by the Central Time Co Ltd London, in 1910. It displays the time accurately on its shining silvery face and the Roman numerals give it a gravitas well above its station but well-suited to its purpose. It can still stamp the time-cards that dictated the meagre wages of the work-force and ruthlessly quartered all late-comers. In fact, it creates such a mighty racket and rings a bell when someone clocks in, that no furtive malingerer could hope to sneak past unannounced! The powerful pendulum noisily asserts the clock’s presence and leaves no doubt in the mind that it is still as alive and well as when it echoed to the relentless blows of the welders’ hammers.

For those with an eye for skilled craftsmanship, the real beauty of this time-piece lies hidden from sight. The lower half houses the brass cogs and gears and sprockets that reduce the movements of the heavens to days and hours and minutes and shifts. The author of the creation story of Genesis chapter 1 sketched-out the blueprint for our craftsman when he introduced the first cosmic clocks, the sun and the moon, to serve the same purpose:

God made the two great lights;

the greater light to govern the day,

the smaller light to govern the night,

and the stars.

God set them in the vault of heaven to shine on the earth,

to govern the day and the night

and to divide light from darkness.

God saw that it was good.

Evening came and morning came: the fourth day. (Gn. 1.16ff).

I have a real soft-spot for clocks that are powered by a pendulum and I can trace this to a particular occasion, and that was the first time I paid a visit to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The first thing that took me by surprise on that occasion was not the tower. I had seen no end of pictures and models of it. I had not expected to find that the tower was only one of three splendid buildings standing proudly on the same campus. There was the cathedral, the baptistery and the bell-tower silhouetted against an expanse of green lawns.

It was on that first visit that I heard the story of how the pendulum came to be discovered, if not invented, by the carnaptious Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). The story goes that, as he knelt before the high altar of the cathedral, possibly rehearsing what he might say to the chief Inquisitor on his next summons to the Holy Office, he was distracted by the beauty of the sanctuary lamp, suspended on a chain from the ceiling of the church. But Galileo, being Galileo, noticed something else. The sanctuary lamp was gently swinging from side to side as it described a perfect arc, kept in motion by a gentle Tuscan breeze.

With his recently invented telescope under his arm, Galileo must surely have left the cathedral at Pisa with a hop, skip and a jump at the thought of yet another revolutionary invention under his belt – the pendulum. If his telescope had persuaded the world that his fellow astronomer, Niclaus Copernicus (1473-1543), had got it right and that planet earth travelled round the sun and not vice-versa, what other myths might his pendulum debunk?A considerable distance separates the sanctuary in Pisa from the industrial landscape of the city of Glasgow and the sanctuary of St Augustine’s Coatbridge ML5 1DQ. Yet they have so much in common. Each has its own confidences to reveal.

In a sense, the sanctuary lamp in the cathedral at Pisa was swinging between heaven and earth. To the mind of the scientist it revealed a marvellous symmetry in the created world. There was an order and precision to the created universe that needed to be explored with all the resources of a scientific and critical mind. Galileo was well-equipped to do just that. By the same token, another hidden source of energy was at work, the gentle Tuscan breeze, and this too invited further speculation. To the eyes of faith, even in the head of a scientist, something must have set the gentle breeze in motion and the sanctuary lamp with it.

In all of this speculation it would be easy to miss the reason why the lamp was there in the first place. It was put there by the parish priest in keeping with liturgical practice as a sign of the Real Presence, a purpose it shared with the tabernacle veil.  It may have inspired the inventive mind of a scientist to translate the regular movement of the lamp into the realms of time and motion. It may even have inspired an enquiring mind to raise the question of a Prime Mover. In all this movement was there possibly something or someone that simply did not move itself but kept everything else on the move? However, its most sublime purpose was to proclaim the redeeming presence of Christ in that place.

Our more modest lamp in St Augustine’s serves the same exalted purpose although propelled more by a mighty draught from above than by a gentle breeze from below.

To return to our Victorian clock. My work’s time-clock recorded man’s working day, minute by minute and was the herald of his mortality, measured in eight-hour shifts.  By contrast, although the sanctuary lamp in Pisa set in motion creative insights that are still not exhausted, it also heralded a future for man that would transcend the limitations of time and carries the promise of unmeasured rest in eternity.

Perhaps I could end with an appeal to those who may be called to build and decorate our churches that they resist the temptation to fix the sanctuary lamp to the wall. Let it swing away. It may still have other mysteries to reveal.

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