Chimes: Time’s Poetic Parallelism. A Benedictine oblate blog
The Big Ben chimes in our home mark every quarter hour (listen to the chimes software we use). Hearing the chimes throughout the day turns my mind to see God’s call and opens my heart to hear His voice.
The progression of chimes through each hour creates a kind of time parallelism. This is similar to the way Hebrew parallelism in the Psalms organizes and structures ideas.
Hebrew parallelism is discussed below here.
The famous Big Ben chimes are the most widely used chime tones for bells that mark time.
The Big Ben bell melody is also known as the "Westminster Chimes" or the Westminster or Cambridge Quarters because the chimes are written to be played every quarter hour.
Tradition has it that the Big Ben chime pattern was written about 1794 for the bells at St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge, England by William Crotch.
From Absolute Astronomy: "According to an inscription in the clockroom of Big Ben, the lyrics are":
According to a Wikipedia article, the Big Ben "melody consists of five different permutations of four notes."
It is commonly believed that the "first four notes of the Big Ben chimes are the same as in the fifth and sixth bars of the opening symphony of Handel’s ‘I Know That My Redeemer Liveth’ in his ‘Messiah’" and that Crotch used those notes as the foundation for his five permutations or variations. See also "The Book of World Famous Music," page 635 at Google Book Search.
In the conventional key of C Major: G, C, D, and E, the Big Ben chimes are [from Wikipedia]:
The chime pattern for an hour is as follows:
The chimes might be viewed as introverted (or inverted) parallelism because the (1) series begins and ends the first and third quarter hours and brackets the series of (2)(3) (4)(5) in the second and third quarter hours.
The hour series of (2)(3)(4)(5) brackets the entire next hour, ending with the following hour’s (2)(3)(4)(5).
The above time parallelism of the Big Ben chimes might be shown as:
And in the striking of the bell for the time of day — each additional hour's bong is like stair-step parallelism for the day until the new day begins.
People who read the Psalms (the most quoted book in the New Testament) — like Benedictine oblates and other who pray or sing the divine office — spend a lot of time with the Psalms. We are drawn to their further study. The Book of Psalms is the largest book in the Bible and the book that coincidently occupies the middle portion of the Bible.1
Seeing the parallelism in a particular Psalm lets our hearts hear a deeper resonance of thought.
The following describes the basic types of parallelism in the Psalms (but these structures are found in other Bible books as well).
Unlike some modern poetry that rhymes, the main poetic forms of the Psalms, indeed of Hebrew poetry, are elegantly crafted lines that structure how one thought or idea is related to another. This poetic form is called parallelism.
"Either by repetition or by antithesis [the opposite thought] or by some other device, thought is set over against thought, form balances form, in such wise as to bring the meaning home to one strikingly and agreeably."2 This definition sounds like a definition that also describes music or our Big Ben chimes — or any great art because sll such art reveals the beauty of God in creation and time. This truth is described in Psalm 18 (19):
The "thought harmony" of Hebrew parallelism in the Psalms illuminates and then intensifies a Psalm’s meaning.
From before birth, God formed in our hearts templates of relationships that correspond and respond to His truth. Psalm parallelism in which "form balances form, in such wise as to bring the meaning home to one strikingly and agreeably" causes such reactions because the psalms strike a chord within us.
Identifying parallelism in the Psalms helps us interpret the Psalms correctly. One thought can be clarified by another either because it is a repeated idea or because some other pattern of relationships provides the clue to an obscure meaning.
Hebrew poetic parallelism was "first identified for modern readers by Robert Lowth in 1753." 3
Parallelism in the Bible comes in a wide variety of forms, here are the most commonly recognized types of parallelisms:
Other kinds of Hebrew parallelism
Knowing the parallelism of a particular Psalm helps orient us to the thoughts just as hearing a Big Ben chime anchors us in time.
Hearing chimes on every quarter hour also tells us a summary of the time — it’s half-past the hour, for example, like an antiphon gives a key thought to consider in a Psalm.
The structure imparted to time by chimes and parallelism used to craft the Psalms is not a confining apparatus any more than a bridge across a river hinders us from reaching our destination.
Chapter 47 of the Rule St. Benedict gives the abbot the responsibility to call the monastic community to the divine office at the proper times — such designation of the abbot to perform this task reveals the high importance St. Benedict placed on the "simple" act of announcing the time for the Work of God (another name for the divine office).
While we know that St. Benedict’s monks did not hear the Westminster Quarters call them to prayer, it is unknown exactly what type of devise was used to announce the time for the divine office. I don't think St. Benedict thought his abbots would be yelling out across the monastery grounds, "Hey, Listen UP! It's time for Vespers."
Benedictine monk Kardong writes that the abbot would most likely strike a gong or use a wooden clapper.6
Kardong also writes that one commentator believes the rod often seen in depictions of St. Benedict was not for punishment, but was for the task important task of striking whatever may have been used to sound the call to prayer.
Regardless of the problems of keeping time in the sixth century AD compared to today, the importance of the call to prayer is also based on the need to respond to God in obedience — which is just as valid for me today as it was in 530 AD when the Rule of St. Benedict was complied. And that is what our chimes do.
In another blog I wrote about how our Big Ben chimes are working again on a used computer and that I really missed the orderliness it gives to time.
The picture is Bok Tower copied from a post card. Bok Tower was built in 1929 as a quiet sanctuary for the American people. It is a favorite place we visit often. This Bok Tower picture was suggested for this blog by my wonderful wife. Thank you, good choice.
1. The Book of Psalms is like a literary chiasmus for the Bible. A chiasmus (pronounced) is inverted parallelism around a central axis. See example above. For an article on chiasmus in the Bible see Chiastic Parallelism.
2. Quote from the New Advent Encyclopedia article on Parallelism.
3. Quote about Robert Lowth from "Psalms," by Geoffrey Grogan, at Google Book Search.
5. The definition of Emblematic Parallelism is from David Graves & Jane Graves, Electronic Christian Media.
6. Benedict’s Rule, by Terrence Kardong, O.S.B., The Liturgical Press, 1996, page 379
New Advent Article, Psalms
The Prayers of the Psalter, by Henry Wansbrough
American Catholic Quarterly at Google Book Search
Jewish Encyclopedia. PARALLELISM IN HEBREW POETRY
I began working on this material on the day of the solemnity of the Ascension, Thursday, May 21, 2009. Due to my inability to know how to insert tables into the blog, I just added this blog as a web page to the Oblate Spring web site where it was easier for me to set the formatting.