When the Bell Tolls

On hearing the signal… the monk will immediately set aside what he has in hand and go with utmost speed… Indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the work of God. (Chapter 43, The Rule of St. Benedict)

Monastic Bells Outside of the Monastery

During my pregnancy, I received an article by Fr. Rolheiser that has remained very present to me throughout these first months of our daughter’s life.  The article came from several unofficially dubbed “mentor moms” who are well ahead of me in years and wisdom of motherhood.  The title: The Domestic Monastery. The most memorable lesson from it: the monk responds immediately to the monastery bell, for in it is found the will of God for that moment of his life.

The article explained how motherhood is a constant “responding to the bell” in the same spirit that St. Benedict, St. Bernard, and other monastic fathers urged their monks to respond immediately to the summons of the monastery schedule. Fr. Rolheiser writes about the monastic bell in his article:

[St.]Bernard, in writing his rules for monasticism, told his monks that whenever the monastic bell rang, they were to drop whatever they were doing and go immediately to the particular activity (prayer, meals, work, study, sleep) to which the bell was summoning them. He was adamant that they respond immediately, stating that if they were writing a letter they were to stop in mid-sentence when the bell rang. The idea in his mind was that when the bell called, it called you to the next task and you were to respond immediately, not because you want to, but because it’s time for that task and time isn’t your time, it’s God’s time. For him, the monastic bell was intended as a discipline to stretch the heart by always taking you beyond your own agenda to God’s agenda.

As Fr. Rolheiser writes in “The Domestic Monastery”, the day (and night!) of a parent is filled with many such bells, where the will of God is for us to suddenly drop what we are doing to attend to the newest demand for our attention. For parents in the early years, the bell of the domestic monastery doesn’t have the melodic resonance of a bell tone, but often comes in the form of a child’s cry for attention.

Why and How

In his Rule, St. Benedict writes about prompt obedience being an expression of love of Christ and embracing His will for us at every moment. He says:

Such people [who cherish Christ above all] immediatedly put aside their own concerns, abandon their own will, and lay down whatever they have in hand, leaving it unfinished. With the ready step of obedience, they follow the voice of authority in their actions. Almost at the same moment, then, as the master gives the instruction the disciple puts it into practice in the fear of God; and both actions together are swiftly completed as one. – Ch. 5, The Rule of St. Benedict

What causes people to act in this immediate manner, abandoning their own will? He continues:

It is love that impels them to pursue everlasting life; therefore, they are eager to take the narrow road of which the Lord says… “I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).  …Furthermore, the disciples’ obedience must be given gladly, “for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). – Ch. 5, The Rule of St. Benedict

How? Immediate, swift, cheerful. Why? Because a love for God’s will impels us.

Parish Bells: An Opportunity for Radical Hospitality 

This article came to mind on several occasions thinking about the daily reality of life at the parish. How often is the plan we have for our day “interrupted” by such bells? The bells we encounter could be a phone call from a parent asking about First Communion protocol, but behind the “what are the requirements” question is an opportunity for listening and evangelization. The bell is a grieving mother who doesn’t know how to get her son back to the Church. It is a person who comes through the door because he’s hoping the parish can provide some financial assistance through the end of the month. The bell is the untimely drop-in who needs a listening ear. And there are so many other forms of tolling bells during our week.

While we might not be monks, the Lord challenges us in the same way through these “bells” of our day to cheerfully and unhesitatingly set aside our plan and embrace this person as the next part of God’s agenda for our day – because we’re working on God’s time, not our time. True hospitality and Christian charity never make the person calling or walking into our office feel like an interruption to our day, but with love embrace the opportunity to “do the will of Him who sent me.” And often the “bells” don’t knock at the door, but need to be noticed and approached by our initiative.

What are the “bells” that have come unexpectedly this week? How can our response be more immediate and cheerful, even when we are in the midst of another task?

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