Thursday, September 17, 2009

Humility in Everyday Life: Bells

Our monastic life is circumscribed by bells. We have chimes that are heard over the intercom ten minutes before time for prayer or Mass. The large bells are then tolled to remind anyone outside that it is time for prayer. After Mass or Mid-Day Prayer one of the bells is rung for the Angelus prayer. After a sister dies we toll the bell as a way of announcing her passing. During a funeral we begin to ring the bells as everyone moves up to the cemetery and we continue to ring them until people begin to come down.

For us the bells are part of a function of monastic humility, they remind us to come back to our center who is God. There seems to be something in the human condition that our default mode is to be self-centered. When we aren’t thinking, aren’t aware, we automatically act as if we are the center of the universe. Our own personal concerns and desires become the most important thing going on.

The bells are a wake-up call, sometimes they are a rude awakening, giving us a rough push off of our throne at the center of our lives. The bells remind us that this life is about God. The bells call us to be mindful, to be present, to listen, to come into the presence of God. Benedict calls on his monks to drop everything when they hear the signal for prayer. It isn’t easy to do. Each of us is the star actor in the drama of our lives and we don’t like to be interrupted. The bell always rings just when we are in the middle of an important project, just when we are finally inspired in a piece of writing, just when we are in the middle of something important. It is at that moment we have to drop everything to go and pray. This isn’t praying when we feel like it or when we decide that the Spirit has moved, it is praying according to someone else's schedule.

The bells remind us that time is not our own. Every moment is a gift, not an entitlement. Hearing the bells interrupts us. They say: listen, pay attention, what are you doing with your one and only life? Time will not be repeated. The moments are one time gifts, will you let them slip away or stop and give thanks in an attitude of stunned amazement?

The bells themselves are a gift. Bells are unique to a monastery, most people don’t have anyone to ring a bell to remind them to come to prayer, to stop and pay attention to God in the gift of the moment. This is why Benedict says that his Rule is a little rule for beginners. Monastics are in the remedial course of spirituality, they have external bells and reminders to bring them back to the presence of God. The bells are a luxury of the monastery.

But for everyone, monastics or not, it is not the bell itself that is important. You can live in a monastery and ignore the bells and continue with your self-important busyness rather than respond to their call. Outside a monastery you can create your own bell, your own reminder and call to stop, to listen, to pay attention and come back to the gift of God in the present moment. It is harder outside the monastery but we all have a choice. Will we listen to the bell, will we stop and give thanks, will we return to our center who is God? Listen says the bell. Listen, it is the call to humility, the call to come back to the center, the call to be present to God.

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