Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Eric Meisfjord, Editor
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The Bells of Mount Angel
by Father Mark Pautler, for the Inland Register
(From the July 21, 2016 edition of the Inland Register)
It’s 5:25 a.m. The bell tolls. In mid-June, the rising sun has already flooded Mount Angel Abbey in light, but now the grounds, the town, and the territory for who knows how far is flooded with the first call to prayer of the monastic day. This morning I will not answer it. Even though I have been awake for an hour, this is my time of retreat during which an essential ingredient is rest. I will take advantage of this permission throughout the day as well as during the night. Although I do not answer this call to the hour of prayer called “Vigils” in the Benedictine tradition (known as Matins or the Office of Readings in the common Liturgy of Hours), it is the hour for me to arise and begin the day. The bell tolls again at 6:35 for Lauds (Morning Prayer), and this time I answer its summons, as I will when the bell resonates at 8 a.m. (Holy Eucharist), noon (Midday Prayer), 5:20 p.m. (Vespers or Evening Prayer) and 7:30 p.m. (Compline or Night Prayer).
From Monday, June 20, until Friday morning of that week, I indulged in a few days of retreat at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon, where a comfortable guesthouse/retreat center is available for just such a purpose. This would not be the traditional “preached retreat” that has been my custom for the previous 41 years, and you can add 12 more if we count the years of seminary formation. The only preaching was the short homily at Mass. I did not ask for a personal director, but made this experience self-directing. It is said that the one who directs himself is directed by a fool, but even St. Paul called himself a fool, for Christ’s sake. The monastic schedule provided structure, with the tolling of the bells a consistent reminder that I have come to pray. This prayer takes place in several ways. There is the more active prayer, when I joined the monastic community to chant the office. Then there is prayer in the sound of silence. The regular tolling of the bell is the call to the active prayer of lifting up your voice, but it is also a summons to the passive prayer of waiting upon the Lord. This latter form of prayer is more difficult to define. What does it mean? Maybe active prayer and passive prayer, as I understand them, can be compared to eating and digestion. Both are needed.
What happened in this retreat? When all things are added up – the active prayer and passive prayer, mealtime and rest time, leisurely walking and leisurely reading – the day is full and the time moves quickly. This is not a way to live every day, but for a few days it is a necessity as well as a luxury.
The indelible imprint of Mount Angel is the tolling of the bell, six times during the monastic day. As I listened to the prolonged gong, I asked myself, “What does this mean to the residents of the community and to those wherever the tolling reaches?” The first tolling at 5:25 a.m. might awaken some of the neighbors. Whether they look upon this favorably or unfavorably, who knows? Is it an irritation? I think of the air raid sirens that used to shriek in many communities. Were these alarms welcomed as a symbol of security? But the bells of Mount Angel might evoke sentiments of safety, security, and comfort in contrast to feelings aroused by the air raid siren. What do the bells say? “The monks are praying.” And that thought may be expanded: “They are praying for our world, our community, and even for me.” The monks are praying. In a world dominated by materialism and instant gratification, where we need to feel productive, there is a place for a different kind of life that does not glorify these values, but invites us to question them. The monks are called to prayer, and so am I. If even one time during the day or during the week this thought comes to me, the bells have done their job. I have been awakened. Maybe there will be a moment of petition: “Help me, Lord. Be with me as I continue my day’s labor.” Or there could be praise or gratitude or even an invitation to contrition: “What I am in the midst of doing or thinking about doing right now, this is not right. This is not what my life is for.” So there you have it, the modalities of prayer as we learned: praise or adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and contrition. Are the bells an annoyance or an invitation? Those within range of the bells of Mount Angel follow one path or another. They tune them out; they hear them as nuisance; or they may hear the summons to prayer.
There is more to tell about my travels to Oregon and then to California, of which Mount Angel was one part, but that may be for another time. Now it is time for me to hear the bells.
(Father Pautler is Judicial Vicar and Chancellor of the Spokane Diocese.)
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