What is it about church bells that are so evocative? Or is it just me? This past week, David and I spent two days on a personal retreat at Saint Meinrad Arch Abbey in Southern Indiana. It’s one of two Benedictine Arch Abbeys in the country. You need to go, if you haven’t. You just do. One of the first things I noticed as I wandered around the grounds exploring the campus were the bells echoing over the country side from the double spire of the cathedral.
At one point, for fifteen entire minutes, the bells collided in a cacophony of sounds, calling the monks to end their day of work and gather in the church for vespers. I was walking near the Arch Abbey at the time and tucked into a court yard, leaned against the wall, and basked in the clamor of the bell’s cascading echoes. It was pure glory.
I experienced the bells as a call to Presence. Throughout the two days and night I heard them ringing a reminder to be present to God; to turn toward the Omni-present-One for whom these bells were created to acknowledge and praise. With all the golden beauty surrounding me, it was not difficult to join them in this “thin” place, thick with Presence.
I experienced the bells as a call to prayer. That is one of their chief purposes—to call the monks to leave whatever they are doing and gather in the sanctuary to pray together the Divine hours. Laud (morning), terce (midday), sext (noon), vespers (evening) and compline (nighttime) designate the points throughout the day when the community comes together to read Scripture, especially the Psalms, and pray individually and in community. It is an offering to God; a returning to God that stitches together the day and makes it whole.
I experienced the bells as a call to real time. I was amazed at how often they rang. Every fifteen minutes a single interval sounded the passage of time. On the hour they rang out the real time, chronos time, and made evident that time was of the essence. It’s not to be squandered. I felt so aware of time—in a good way. The bells helped me mark time, grounding myself in the real time of my day.
My retreat at Saint Meinrad was wonderfully restoring. And what I remember and cherish most was my experience of the bells. I suppose if I lived in the community, they might become as familiar a background noise as the sirens and traffic I hear in my neighborhood. Yet these bells have awakened a yearning to have a similar auditory cue in my day to day life that helps me attend to Presence, prayer and real time.
What is it about church bells that are so evocative? Or is it just me?