Saturday, November 17, 2007

Bells: a Monastic Apocalypse


Not long ago, I was walking down the short hall through which the nuns pass from our monastery to the chapel. The fall day was warm. Sunlight fell through the wall of windows lining the hall and warmed the tiles, all in variegated shades of dusty red, dusty rose and gray. The moment seemed endless.

Across this sunny idyll fell the sound of the monastery bell summoning the community to prayer. It provoked an unexpected memory. In the film version of Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach, set in Australia between the world’s final nuclear war and the inevitable moment when the last remaining lives will be extinguished, one scene shows a revival in which an evangelist harangues his listeners to prepare for the end. Above his head hangs a banner on which is printed, “There is still time, brothers!” At the end of the movie, when everyone is gone, the camera pans the streets of the city, all deserted. Finally, it leads the viewer into the empty square above which flaps the banner: “There is still time, brothers!” Seeing it on television in the early 60’s, when apocalypse was in the air, was an arresting moment. I have never forgotten it.

Fall carries its own poignancy. On that late fall day, remembering the movie, I heard the same message in the bell: “There is still time”. The mundane meaning was that there was still time to get to the chapel in time for the appointed Office in the daily round of Liturgy of the Hours. Nuns in our monastery develop an uncanny sense of timing: “There goes the bell. Five minutes. I still have time to…” We admit it, we laugh at ourselves, we wish we were a bit more prompt about dropping our work and hurrying to the chapel as St. Benedict exhorts in his Rule: “On hearing the signal for an hour of the divine office, the monk will immediately set aside what he has in hand and go with utmost speed, yet with gravity and without giving occasion for frivolity. Indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God.” (RB 43:1-3) Still we find ourselves, sometimes anyway, squeezing in that last word on the computer, that last swish of the mop, that last paragraph of the book, with just enough time to be in our places when the signal is given to begin the Office. The bell is our friend: it tells us that there is still time.

On that late fall day, however, with the closing scene of the movie on my mind I heard the message with a difference urgency. In the prologue of the Rule, Benedict himself spells it out: “If we wish to reach eternal life, even as we avoid the torments of hell, then—while there is still time, while we are in this body and have time to accomplish all these things by the light of life—we must run and do now what will profit us forever.” (RB Prologue 42-44). The bell does tell us that there is still time to get where we are going, but that isn’t exactly where we think. Nor is the time between here and there as endless as it seems on a warm, sunny lazy autumn afternoon. The bell tells us to drop the small tasks we imagine to be so important—and many of them are, in their time. But their time is not now, says the bell. Now is the time to leave them behind and go at once to attend to the great work, the work of prayer, which is our rehearsal for an eternity in communion with our beloved Christ and our service to all those we hope to gather up with us into that eventual delight.

During these closing weeks of the liturgical year, we read a good bit of the apocalyptic literature of the Old and New Testament. Its language can be frightening: temples falling, wars and rumors of wars, earthquake, plague, the moon turned to blood. Not a pretty picture. Its purpose, though, is not to scare the socks off us and send us skittering into the nearest air raid shelter, there to sit out the end-times in relative safely, emerging only when it’s all over. Its purpose is the purpose of the bell: to tell us that time as we know it is not a permanent abode but a ribbon that is unwinding toward its end, whether that end for us is death or universal nuclear destruction. Whether it unwinds slowly or with the speed of light is not given us to know. What is given us to know is that we still have now. “Now” is not to be held lightly. “Now” is not a mere way station through which we pass without noticing it as we hurry on to somewhere else, which always looks more important before we get there. “Now” is the time for our conversatio, our conversion, our shedding of the inessentials that hinder us along the road where, Benedict tells us, “we shall run [toward our end] on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love” (RB Prologue 49). “Now” matters.

But we don’t have to wait for the apocalyptic readings of the final weeks of the liturgical year to remember what “now” is for and why we cherish it. Daily, every day, the bells—or their equivalent in lives lived outside the monastery—remind us with their kindly urgency: “There is still time, brothers. There is still time, sisters. There is still time.”

Quotations of from the Rule of St. Benedict are taken from RB:1980, ed. Timothy Fry, OSB (Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press, 1981)

©2007 Abbey of St. Walburga

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