Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Smallest of Things

How many of you saw the movie Into Great Silence? It's a captivating film, which says a lot for a production that is more than three hours long, has virtually no dialog, and no musical soundtrack. It also has no chase scenes, New York is not demolished, there are no cars or gadgets on steroids, no blondes, and no computer generated images.

What made this movie fascinating is that, as it unfolded, little sounds that you heard in the early part of the film began to make sense: the creaking of a board, the falling of rain on a roof, the sound of footsteps in a certain passageway. It is as if, through the elimination of distracting sounds, all sounds became more expressive, more important.

And, as a bonus – when we walked out of the theatre on Notre Dame's campus, the entire audience had been so mesmerized by what was presented, they departed in absolute silence, afraid to break the spirit of what they had just watched.

It is much the same here, as we have spent our days at this monastery in the heart of the French Alps. With many of the distractions of this world taken away, little actions, little movements, little sounds – they all mean a lot.

So today I want to write about the monk who rings the bells at the abbey.

At most churches and monasteries in America, the tolling of bells now amounts to the pressing of a button. Press this one, and you get the funeral toll. Press that one, and the peal announces the start of mass.

But at Tamié, all of this is done by hand, and some of it is just outright masterful.

At the conclusion of Compline each evening, the Angelus is rung. It is a specific peal, done the world over: three strikes of the bell, done three times, with a pause in between each set. In many places around the world, it signifies the beginning and the end of the work day.

The monk carefully grabs hold of the large rope, his hand reaching for a specific knot in the cord. Carefully, his body begins to move – not too aggressively, because he wants to control the clapper, and not have it swing wildly. He pulls twice, each time holding back at the end of the tug. The heavy rope makes a slight crackling sound, its fibers aware of the function they must serve.

Then the monk freezes in the middle of the next pull, going rigid. And the bell, high up in the belfry, responds: the bell sounds just three times, announcing to the valley the end of the day and the exhortation to put the listener into the arms of the Mother of God.

Then comes the breathing and the quiet movement: the monk gently rocks back and forth, passing this energy up the cord. The bell must keep moving, just enough, to maintain the motion of the clapper, but not so much that the bell will sound. It is a brief sabbatical.

And then, the monk begins to move again, his monastic cowl gently sweeping against the stones of the church. The choreography begins once more, this intentional waltz between monk, rope, and bell. Twice more, the dance unfolds, each time, marvelously, the bell responds to the precise movements of the monk below.

Then, there is silence. The valley, and all of us in it, ponder the events of the day. The monk is still stationary, still waiting for a sign. And then – he puts his full weight into the cord and, by the second or third tug, up above the belfry responds, the full peal breaking forth, this time, with all the force and acoustic ambiance of the bell fully engaged in movement. It is a metallic acclamation, calling all things good at the end of the day.

Just as God did, at the end of each of his important days, billions of years ago.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Tamié Abbey, Plancherine, France

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