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Bells call us to remember

Every afternoon, as I sit in my upstairs office, I hear the old monastery bells begin to ring in the once Benedictine church that then Monastic Heart by Joan Chittisteradjoined this inner-city monastery. In fact, the bells from Benedictine monasteries everywhere still peal out around the world. Our original monastery moved over 50 years ago from an in-town property to the edge of the city. So, we have another bell tower and a new electronic carillon. The big old brass bell, “Theodore,” shipped from Germany ages ago, now rests retired and reverenced on a brick base in the memorial garden of the new monastery. New bells go on ringing over our lakeside property daily, just as the old one did here in the inner city for more than 150 years. No bedroom clocks, no personal watches take their place as harbingers of spiritual time.

But why?

The purpose of Benedictine bells is not to spell out the hour of the day at all; that task is left to horologists. Our bells, on the other hand, are there to wrench our attention back to what is really important in life: the memory of God in our midst. The memory of the purpose of life. The memory that time is moving on and so must we. The recognition that life today is different than yesterday, and we must not try to hold life back. The bells jog the memory that there are actually more important, more meaningful, more demanding dimensions of life than anything ordinary we can possibly be doing as they ring.

The bells stop us in midflight to prod us to ask ourselves again if what we are doing is what we are really meant to be doing. But most of all, they are begging us to listen to the great issues of life, to the rest of life. They are asking us to hear the cries of those in need, to confront our own reservoirs of pain.

When loss drains the dregs of our heart, the bells remind us that another day is coming and with it the grace we need to confront it. When fear captures us, the bells are there to remind us not to be afraid. When the past has disappeared from our sights and there is not even a glimpse of the future to be found, the bells remind us that the only way to deal with the future is to accept its call to shape us.
It’s what you pay attention to in life that determines both your commitments and your inner happiness. Time is its indicator. One of the most important questions of life is surely, Where do I spend my time and what am I doing there? The second is, What calls me back to where I’m meant to be? Money? Work? The crowd? What . . .?

Monastic bells can draw your attention again and again to what is really of great concern: the call of God in you to remember the suffering, to comfort the grieving, to feed the underfed. To continue the work of God’s love for all the earth. If those are the bells of life that waken our hearts, then, perhaps, we will finally become a country again, a people again, and reflect more signs of humanity than of nationalities and clans and colors.

   —from The Monastic Heart by Joan Chittister (Convergent Books, Random House)