Friday, July 30, 2010

High noon

While I was in Luzern on Tuesday, around noon I wandered into a shop to browse around and overhead a woman with a British accent ask the clerk at the counter a question:

“Are those bells ringing for some sort of service,” she asked, referring to the tolling coming from a church somewhere in the city.

“They’re ringing because it’s lunchtime,” answered the clerk, hestitating.

The woman who asked the question laughed as if this were the funniest thing in the world. We will give her the benefit of the doubt and presume that it was nervous laughter at not having realized that it was noon. Surely, there are church bells that ring at noon where she is from.

Perhaps not, though. At Saint Meinrad, I have grown accustomed to bells marking the day, every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I have helped ring them to summon worshippers to the church for the Liturgy of the Hours, Mass, solemn profession, and funerals. And on ordinary days, they help me to not only remember what time it is, but Whose time it is, and that we all live each moment in the presence of God Eternal (on my good days).

For many people in the United States at least, hearing church bells tolling throughout the day for a Mass, wedding, or simply for “lunchtime” was part of daily living a generation or two ago. But it strikes me (pun intended) that the experience has become less common in recent years as the neighborhood church has slowly lost its place as the focal point of community living. Before coming to the monastery, I lived in a number of neighborhoods where church bells were only heard on Sunday morning (when I prayed for them to be quiet so I could go back to sleep, but that’s another story).

Here in Europe, it’s quite the opposite. Whatever effect secularization has had on society, the bells are loud and clear and quite numerous here. I find it comforting (now). In Rome, it is not uncommon to hear church bells ringing somewhere in the city all day long. And in each town I have visited in Europe this summer, church bells have marked the time in prominent fashion for all the citizenry to hear. There have been a number of occasions this summer when I have stopped whatever I was doing and just quietly listened to the tolling, making it my prayer.

Such was the case at noon today, when the bell you see above tolled at Einsiedeln (yes, I climbed up the steeple to take the photo, but I used the stairs, and not while the bell was ringing). There are many bells here, more than at Saint Meinrad. There are so many of them ringing at different times of the day that sometimes I am not quite sure precisely what they are signaling. But when the bell above tolls, it means it’s for something important. It is the largest of the bells at Einsiedeln, weighing close to 7 tons, and it is more than 400 years old.

It rang today at noon for a number of reasons, I suppose. Yes, it was lunchtime. But before lunch, the monks gather in church to pray. And this bell rings at noon every Friday for one other reason—it is the hour and day the church has traditionally recalled Christ’s crucifixion for the life of the world.

It is a moment of gratuitous eternity, and that is something for which we can all be thankful—and for lunch, too.

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