The priest hoisted the Host into the air, and then began the bells, telling the world that time was standing still. Through the rain went out the golden clamor, insisting that here inside this brick building was the light of the world. Past the church doors went the Uber drivers, the beer delivery men, the slender athletes on their way to the gym, the homebound, wheezing their way through the flu or through their final years.
And underneath the bell tower, we knelt and heard a great groaning as the bells swung in their cradles. From our place in the pews, the mechanism made more noise than the ringing itself: The whoosh as those heavy bells clove the air, the thunk as they returned home. The dullness of the clapper as it swung.
The bells are, I believe, on an automatic timer. No fat, jolly friar bustles up the stairs to yank merrily on the ropes that cause the bells to ring. They begin on their own, every day at this time, because every day, there is something to say: Christ is here, Christ is here, whether anyone is listening or not.
And we who are already there, already gathered, already on our knees: We hear the groaning of the lumber and the bronze, hard at work, cranking those bells so they ring. And because we are already here, we hear the workings of the bells with their weight better than we hear the chiming itself.
It is an honor to be there, inside the church, under the steeple. But not all honors are easy to bear. We look at ourselves and wish, almost, to be still on the outside, still unchurched, looking for shelter and hearing the bright peal of the chimes instead of the cranking of the gears. It’s easier to hear the Good News for the first time and to be glad than it is to know the Good News and to still be sad, still be bad.
The Lord has put us inside the tower and given us endless things to tell the world about Him. “Forgive each other,” we feel compelled to say, because we are Christians, and it is what the Lord has told us to say. How humiliating to be so close and to know how heavy we find those words, how hard to make those bells swing. “She’s telling me to be forgiving? Her?” It is humiliating. Or humbling, which is not the same thing.
It takes humility to accept the help of that automatic timer to get us going every week. If the Church didn’t tell me I must slog through the rain in my leaky books and prop my heavy body up in the pew, would I go? I doubt it. Even though I know Christ is here.
It takes a kind of spiritual courage to hear the inner workings of the Church, to be aware of the unmusical mechanisms of the soul. To remain on our knees and acknowledge the glory of God even as the thunk and the swoosh and the groan of those bells threatens to overwhelm their actual call.
This is Lent. This is the season of of repentance: Offering up our sins that aren’t sexy or exciting or thrilling, but our dreary habits, our dullness, our torpor. This is the season of giving over not only our sins, but our indifference to them. Accepting not only our guilt, but our mediocrity.
Lent isn’t, most years, all exquisite agony or passionate penitence. It’s more the stolidness of the clapper, when we allow ourselves to be carried by the mechanism of the liturgical year. “Ring out, ye bells!” we sang on Christmas day. And now, as Lent trundles on, the Church tells us: Hang in there, ye bells. We’re headed out for another ride, praying the Lord will open our ears to hear His call above our own noise.