The wisdom of the ages, some would contend, is lost on the young. Looking back on my own youthful follies, I’m inclined to agree. But if my thoughts and actions at the age of twenty sometimes lacked the component of wisdom, that lack cannot be blamed on my formal education. On the contrary, I was a student of English literature. I had read my Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. And as it happened, on many a morning I was reminded of ancient wisdom in general and the brevity of life in particular.
At the time, I was an international student at the University of Leeds, in West Yorkshire, England. Although the university is situated in the city center, I lived in the semi-rural suburb of Adel (pron. AD-el; pop. 6,122 in 2011) and commuted by city bus to the urban campus. My home from home, as the English say, was a country house built of Yorkshire gritstone in the 1850s and later converted to a student residence. Known as Sadler Hall, its amenities included a comfortable common room, a library with leather armchairs, a well-kept flower garden, and a spacious, landscaped lawn, where I learned to play English-style croquet. For breakfast I ate Weetabix, toast, and, without fail, a soft-boiled egg in an egg cup—a habit I’ve maintained until this day. Coming home from lectures, tutorials, and hours of study in the university library, I retired to the common room for sherry and conversation. And for dinner I was regaled with roast beef, Shepherd’s Pie, Yorkshire pudding, and other staples of English cuisine. It was a privileged existence, to be sure, and perhaps I might be excused for forgetting it was finite.
Yet, as I walked to the bus stop in the early mornings, often taking the longer path across the fields to Church Lane, I was gently awakened from that dream. Preoccupied though I usually was, I could not help noticing, on my left, the Adel St. John the Baptist Church, a 12th-century parish church enclosed by venerable trees. I felt drawn to its peaceful presence. And over the course of several months, I fell into the habit of stopping in at the church and exploring its quiet but resonant surroundings.
In a manner characteristic of English parish churches (and memorialized in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”), Adel’s is surrounded by a churchyard, which harbors graves as old as the early 17th century. Its oldest legible gravestone is dated 1694. Walking past the crosses and headstones, some of them listing and some erect, I would often gravitate toward a single destination: a centuries-old sundial, mounted horizontally on a gritstone shaft. Engraved on its octagonal copper plate were its date of origin (1682), the name of its maker (one J. Munn of York), and its circle of Roman numerals. “Ut hora sic vita,” read its worn Latin motto; and beneath it, an English translation: “As an hour so is life.”
Fifty years on, I cannot recall with any precision what feelings or recognitions, conscious or otherwise, my encounters with that motto might have prompted. I do know that it made a deep impression and has stayed with me through the decades. Looking into its origins, I have discovered that, as mottoes go, it is nothing special. It is probably the most common motto in England. But in 1964 it was new to me, and it engendered profound reflection. Among other things, it admonished me to be present for my one precious life.
Four years ago, I decided to make a video combining my rendition of the haunting sarabande from J.S. Bach’s Third Lute Suite, transcribed for classical guitar, with images of Adel Church and its environs. I got in touch with Val Crompton, Adel’s local historian, who kindly supplied me with her photographs of some the church’s distinctive features. These include its elaborately carved doorway and chancel arch, its ornamental grotesque heads, and its stained-glass windows depicting scenes from Norman history. In the course of our correspondence, I mentioned the sundial and my onetime residence at Sadler Hall. Regrettably, Val informed me, Sadler Hall was demolished in the early 1990s and replaced by private housing. And on a night in August, 2002, the sundial and its shaft were stolen.
“All composite things,” the Diamond Sutra reminds us, “are as a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a dewdrop, a flash of lightning.” In their general import those lines concur with “Ut Hora Sic Vita,” though by comparison they suggest that our time on earth is even shorter. By keeping those perspectives clearly in mind, we not only anchor our wayward thoughts in things as they are. We also quicken our sense of presence and our appreciation of the world’s transitory beauty.
Photo of Adel St. John the Baptist Church by Val Crompton.