“I’ve got to go, the bell just rang.” More than once I’ve ended an e-mail or phone call with those words. Three times a day we hear the bells here at the monastery. Ten minutes before prayer or Mass a designated sister rings the chimes that are broadcast through the phone intercom to the whole monastery and retreat center. It is a time to finish what we are doing to go to chapel.
This is an ancient monastic practice. Benedict didn’t use the phone intercom system but he had designated people and designated times for everyone to get ready for the “Work of God,” for the hours of prayer. Benedict wrote at some length about how this was supposed to happen, how to give people enough time to get to chapel, what happens to people who can’t seem to arrive on time no matter how much time you give them and so forth.
Benedict knew that outward practices are what lead to interior transformation. At first the bell is an interruption, an irritation. We are busy, important people. We have lots to do, things to accomplish. The bells invariably ring in the middle of an important task. Prayer can happen at any time, why can’t I just go ahead and finish what I’m doing? I’ll pray later. Or at least that is our justification, our rationalization when the call to prayer interrupts our work.
But perhaps that is precisely the purpose of the bells. The bells strike at the heart of our most cherished illusion, that we are in control of our life, that we determine our own schedule, our own priorities and we can make our own decisions as to what is most important. When the bells ring and we have to drop everything there is something more important than our own desires, there is something more important than being in control.
The bells are a tangible reminder that our time, our life, is not our own, all that we have is a gift from God. At first the bells seem like a conditioned response. We hear the bell and like Pavlov’s dogs we automatically proceed to chapel for prayer. But unlike the dogs salivating at the bell signaling food, we are able to go deeper, the conditioned response can become an invitation. After many years the bells are no longer a command. The bells become an invitation. The bells become the whisper of God: let go, listen, rejoice, do not fear. I give you all good gifts, I am with you at all times, in rejoicing and in desolation, I am with you says the Lord.
The bells are an invitation, and like any invitation we can choose whether to respond. Frequently I don’t respond, I show up to chapel in body but not in spirit, I don’t always put everything down but carry it with me as I remain preoccupied and distracted. But fortunately God shows up for prayer even when I don’t. God waits in infinite trust and patience for me to catch up, to respond to the meaning of the bells. And so tomorrow the bells will sound again, God whispering: “Come, I am here.”