It’s all in the timing



“I love it when a plan comes together,” said John ‘Hannibal’ Smith, a character in the television series from the 1980s called the ‘A’ Team.  I get the same sense of frisson when a whole series of small incidents seem to coincide, as if someone somewhere is trying to get a point across.


There was just such an occasion a couple of days ago when I was staying with some friends.  First, I watched a television programme about Stonehenge.  Then I was given a cup of tea in a mug with a picture of Stonehenge on it; and finally I opened the book I was reading at the fifth chapter to find that the whole of the first two paragraphs referred to Stonehenge.  But the sense of excitement came not from Stonehenge in the end but from what the writer of my book suggested it illustrated: the “temp” part of the word “contemplation.”  This was new to me and thrilling, so I am passing it on.


The word “temp” comes from the same root as “notch”; notch as in a mark made in a stick or on a stone to denote a measurement.  So you might measure the length of something by marking a notch on your piece of wood and then another mark to denote the end of what you are marking.  Thus, “temp” is a measure of something as in temperament (the measurement of somebody’s emotional or psychological state), tempo (the measure of musical beat), temporary ( denoting a short or impermanent time) or temporal (meaning a state of chronological time or something worldly or earthly.)  There are plenty more words with “temp” in them to illustrate the meaning.


But however the word might be used today, originally it was not an earthbound word but a measurement for the heavens, the place where people looked for answers.  The augurs in ancient Rome would gaze at the stars to see if the deities favoured or disapproved of actions proposed by the city.  This was what Stonehenge was supposed in part to do.  It was, amongst other things, a giant time piece which denoted the summer and winter equinoxes and the full moons.  Whoever used it was doing so in order to study the stars and to listen to the gods.  But over time the place below from which the heavens were studied became a sacred space and took on the name of “temp, as well.”  From this we get the Latin word “templum.”  This was not a building but a sacred space and, eventually, this became temple, the place or building in which the higher things, the things of God, are studied and worshipped; where, earthbound as we are, we can measure the heavens.


Contemplation is therefore that state in which we deliberately place ourselves in a position to measure, spend time with, reflect on that which is ‘higher.’  “Con” means “with” so we are putting ourselves with the reflecting or meditating time.  It is a purposeful act but it is also a natural one.  It is an action that has been innate in human beings from the beginning.


We still gaze up at the stars and it is right that we do so because they are wonderful and they give us a sense of proportion.  We no longer worship the stars, however.  Nor do we believe anymore that we have to worship in the temple of Jerusalem for our faith to be genuine.  The “temple” became for Christians, the person of Jesus Christ.  It is when we gaze on him, when we spend time with him, that our eyes, hearts, minds and spirits look heavenward.