The Bell tolls for thee…
Solemnity of the Annunciation | Fr David Rocks urges us to listen for the Angelus Bell that fittingly interrupts our lives.
There are few things more welcome to pious ears than the sweet sound of the Angelus Bell! The punctuation of our daily activities with the beautiful and rhythmic sound of the bell! The words of a popular Marian hymn capture that: “The Bells of the Angelus are calling to pray, in sweet tones announcing the Sacred Ave!” But can we hear it? Do we listen?
From my childhood days I remember vividly my Grandmother and her brother and sister, arresting whatever activity was in order at midday, when the great tenor bell of Newry Cathedral sounded the call to prayer. I’d listen and long to be able to join in the responses, gradually getting to know them. Of course, there was the familiar and comforting sound of the Hail Mary repeated three times, reflecting the thrice ringing bell, and the three times for the Sign of the Cross, together with this practice taking place three times a day at morning, noon, and evening.
But childlike awe lessens with age, and familiarity muffles sensitivity. During my teenage years, I heard the Angelus bell announce the proximity of lunchtime, or the end of a period of afternoon study. It marked a time of liberation, if only brief, but did it retain its meaning? In Newry, the great tenor bell of the Cathedral was a fair match for the tenor bell at the Dominican Priory; and, not to be outdone, the treble bell at St Clare’s Convent and the Convent of Mercy would make their mark felt ever more gently. Years later, visiting Rome, I remember being astounded by the great pealing of the Angelus at 7pm from the great basilicas and churches of that city – marking the liberation from the working day, as people rushed from business to recreation. But can they hear it? Do they listen?
When I first moved to Oxford, there were many bells all through the city, but not the Angelus. In a different country, with a variety of traditions, that familiar sound was missing. I couldn’t hear it, no matter how hard I might listen. I had taken the Angelus for granted, and over the years it had become perhaps too stale, over familiar, and I didn’t always listen. You see, it can be an interruption – it can terminate a conversation, lose a train of thought, arrest a worthwhile activity. The Angelus isn’t always convenient, its interruption isn’t always welcome. We don’t want to hear it. We won’t listen. In Leicester, where I live, the Angelus rings from our priory as a lonely voice, nonetheless shrill. Sometimes it startles me at my desk or in mid conversation when I’m there. But sometimes, if I’m at a distance from the priory, it’s there faintly, like an echo in the din of the city. I can hear it. I try to listen.
The Angelus and the great feast of the Annunciation celebrates that great moment of interruption, when the Angel of the Lord announced unto Mary, and She conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mary’s life was interrupted, human history was interrupted, the long reign of sin was interrupted, and the long division between God and humanity began to be healed, as the Word became flesh. That new communion, the new relationship that God desires with each one of us, necessitates the interruption of our own plans and strategies, to provide opportunity for repentance, so that we recognise that we have been chosen to a fresh and vibrant new life.
So ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. It might inspire childlike awe and amazement, it might inspire piety and prayer. It might be a sound of liberation, a distraction, or an inconvenient interruption. Hear it, and listen. God elected to interrupt the tyranny of sin and division when he chose Mary as the Mother of His Son. An Angel of the Lord announced this unto Mary. She heard. She listened. She said Yes.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the east window in the Slipper Chapel, Walsingham.