When I was growing up we went through a time when the lives of monks and nuns were of intense interest to the public in general, and one of the manifestations of this was a rash of movies about life inside a cloister: "I Leap Over The Wall" was one of the most popular. I don't know if there is such a thing as lurid spirituality, but these movies presented the life of prayer in the most sensational way possible - which is saying quite a lot for a life that is mostly pretty ordinary. Anyway, what I am remembering this week is a scene in which a newly aspiring nun is being instructed in the monastic way by an older (actually, really old) sister, who says in the most dramatic way possible: "Heed the bells, my daughter. They are the voice of God." I don't remember if there was creepy music at that point, but it would have been a good spot for it.
Still, I remember that movie moment all these years later, and not just because of the ridiculous element in the conversation, but because there is something there I still hold on to. The old nun is presenting, in a fairly sensational way, a reality which we live out in this life, and one which has applicability far beyond this life. She's pointing to the reality that the stuff we get wrapped up in is frequently not all that important.
There is a tradition in old-fashioned monastic circles that when the bells begin to ring to summon you to church, at the the very first stroke of the bell you cease doing what you are doing at that moment. In certain texts you can find advice to go very far in this practice. If you are writing, you are advised to leave unfinished not just the word you are putting down, but the very letter your pen in on at the time. If you are talking to someone, the conversation is to be broken off in mid-sentence. If you are cooking, you stop stirring immediately. Whatever the task, it is to be stopped at the very instant the bells begin to ring, so that you can get yourself to church. God is calling, after all, and there is nothing more important.
Obviously people with outsized obsessive needs had a field day with this practice, and it has long been ridiculed because of the ways in which it has been abused. But I still remember the initial call: "Heed the bells, they are the voice of God." And I know, from my own experience, that there is wisdom there.
I get so wrapped up in what I'm doing. I have a lot of desk work to do, and there is always more of it that there is time to do it. Then I have incense to make, people to to talk to, money to raise for building projects, phone calls to make, etc., etc., etc and on to the end of time as far as I can see. It's all important, it all has to be done immediately, and the more I heed the voice that drives me into all those tasks the deeper I get in that hole.
Then the bell rings. It's time for another service. In the time that I've been in the monastery I have attended approximately 40,000 services. (Count it up - 5 a day for 40 years). What could possibly be important enough in another chanting of the Psalms to make it worth interrupting this crucial task that I am currently engaged in? This is total nonsense (my mind tells me). What I'm doing is important! It's more than important! It has to be finished!!!!!
And I have no choice. The life I have chosen calls me to chant the Psalms five times a day most of the days of the week. I don't often leave a letter unformed in the midst of a word, nor do I stop in mid-sentence when I'm talking to someone. Often enough I stumble into the monastery church just at the final minute - slightly out of breath and with no time to prepare for the chanting. But I get there. It's my life.
And, when I'm really alert to what's going on I realize that the wisdom behind this practice of ours is just that the bells challenge my obsessive nature over and over. It says to me: "Is it really all that important? Does it need to be finished as quickly as you think? What is really important to your life?"
If God is the center of my life and the bells are calling me to God's service, then the old nun is right after all; the bells are the voice of God calling. They call me to the reality of my commitment. They call me to what I said was most important to me when I decided to embrace this life. And they point out to me, over and over, how I tend to organize my time so that I would get around this commitment if I could - if only the damn bells would let me!
And here we are, right at the center of one of life's central dilemmas. As St Paul says in one of his most famous passages: "The good that I would do, I do not do............." Are my tasks, my work, my conversations, my counselling sessions, (yes, even my incense stirring) important? Yes, they are. Are they not the call of God in my life? Of course. But that isn't the point here. The point for me is how I can make any of these good things into an idol - a force that must be served to the exclusion of all else. I have to get it done! And over and over the bells sound to remind me of something deeper - the need to confront my obsessions, and to develop the freedom to walk away from them. The bells teach me, at a level far deeper that I would choose for myself, what I am really like, and what I need to do in order to be free for God.
Of course this has to be done with balance and common sense. From time to time there is a genuine emergency - one of the brothers is in the hospital, someone in a real crisis is talking to me - and I need to ignore the call of the bells. But that's rare (very rare, if I am honest about it). Mostly I need to deal, over and over again with what I am really like, and how something in me deeply resists some of the basic elements of my call to center my life in God.
And it's a lifetime task. It really is the drip of water wearing away the stone of my disordered nature. But, after a long time, I do see not just the stone but the little hollow that the drip has worn away in it. Conversion takes a long time, but it does happen. The voice of God does call me more deeply now.
And what is your version of this struggle?