I had the pleasure of meeting Becket while I was doing some personal soul-searching at St. Joseph Abbey. At the time he was a professing monk who had not taken his final vows. He has since left the monastery to become the personal assistant of the writer Anne Rice. In a recent conversation has given me permission to reprint his story as he is posting it on Facebook. I hope you find these installments as fascinating as I do. I will be posting these installments on Monday. Irvin
A Monk’s Story Part 5
THE RINGING OF THE BELLS
One of my favorite jobs in the monastery was ringing the church bells.
The prior assigned that work to junior monks like me.
Each of us took turns ringing the bells one week a month.
There were six bells. Each had a name.
Raphael, Blaze, Laurence, Gabriel, Sixtus, and Angelo.
Each bell had a long rope that stretched from the bell tower all the way down to the church, into the ambulatory – the hidden walkway that reaches around the back of the church, behind the main altar.
The ropes were worn from years of use.
We rang the bells almost every day for prayer.
The bells were a way of communicating. We had sacred silence in the monastery. Ringing the bells told us when prayer began. Tolling the bells told us how prayer was ending.
For ringing, I simply continued pulling on the rope to keep the bell swinging with momentum.
Tolling means I could only let the bell ring once. It was a controlled clang.
We had four kinds of days of prayer. Each kind of day required a different way to ring the bells.
Most days were ordinary. We rang and tolled Gabriel then. He was the middle bell.
We never heard him at the first prayer service, Matins, just before 5 am. That was still a time of silence.
Gabriel was first rung with the sunrise, at 6am, for our Laudes service.
His note could be heard for about half a mile, all the way down to the Carmelite convent, where gentle sisters were also gathering together for their own morning prayer service.
We run Gabriel before mass, before Vespers (evening prayer), and before Compline (night prayer).
He was also tolled for our Angelus Prayer, which began after Laudes and Vespers. That was a prayer remembering how the angel Gabriel spoke with Mary, the mother of God.
Tolling Gabriel for the Angelus Prayer was tricky. He had to be tolled three times, then three more times, and then three last times. And then he was rung for a full minute.
Tolling bells was difficult for me at first.
Each bell had its own personality, and this was especially true for tolling.
For the lightest bell, Angelo, you could pull his rope down once, and hold it so that one note tolled out.
But you could not do that with Gabriel. He was too heavy. I had to pull his rope down just enough so that the hammer in the bell was about to strike a note, and then I’d release him, so that his bell tolled on the upswing. But then I had to quickly grab the rope again, to stop the bell from swinging back, preventing any further notes from knelling.
Tolling was an important aspect of monastic work.
Another kind of prayer day was memorials. That’s when we remembered an important event in the church’s history, such as the death of John the Baptist. On those days we’d ring two bells.
And after Laudes and Vespers, we’d toll just Gabriel again.
Fewer than ordinary days and memorial days were feasts. But they were more celebratory. Those were days when we remembered important events that shaped our relationship with God, such as Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist.
On those days I’d ring three bells. This meant that I would have to get another monk to help me. Sometimes I couldn’t find another brother. Trying to ring three bells at once was challenging, but it was possible, albeit awkward. I’d have to pull the rope of the two lighter bells in one hand while pulling the rope of the heavier bell in the other.
Fewest of the four prayer days were solemnities. They were the most important celebrations of our year. On those days, we remembered events that we believed changed the course of human history, such as Christmas and Easter.
On those days, all six bells were rung.
I had to get five other brothers to help me, and sometimes we had to make do with only four.
Each kind of day – ordinary, memorial, festal, and solemn – had a special sequence for the ringing of the bells.
Most days I’d ring Gabriel for a minute or so, while the monks walked in statio from the cloister to the church. I’d ring until they processed through the church and took their place in choir.
On festal days I’d ring the bells in a particular sequence for about five minutes. The sequence began with all three bells ringing for a minute. Then each bell was rung alone for a minute. Next two bells were rung together for the last minute. Finally all the bells were rung together.
Solemn days were wonderful! For mass, all six bells had to be rung for 15 minutes. This sequence began with all six bells ringing together for five minutes. Then each bell had a turn alone for a minute. Some bells were coupled together for a few minutes. At last, when the celebration was about to begin, all the bells had to be rung together.
The noise was grand, especially on the Easter Vigil, which began at 10pm and finished at 2am.
Before then, we had 40 days of Lent. We didn’t ring bells during that time because bells were considered celebratory instruments, and for us Lent was supposed to have greater gravitas.
Instead of ringing bells we had what we called a “clacker.” It was a wooden instrument with a handle that had to be cranked around, like an organ grinder. Yes, it made a *clacking* noise. It was penitentially loud.
We were glad when Lent finished for many reasons, Easter being principal, of course, but also because we put the clacker aside.
At the Easter Vigil, all six bells were rung for the first time after 40 days. It was a welcomed sound. We were celebrating the fact that we weren’t afraid of death any more because we believed that Jesus defeated it by rising from his tomb. All six bells announced our joy.
The bell ringing commenced two hours after the service began, right at the stroke of midnight.
We rang all six bells for almost ten minutes.
The bells could be heard for miles around. Many families lived down the road from the abbey. I never heard of any neighbor complaining.
Easter was beautiful because we celebrated life from death.
But funerals were equally important.
Only one bell could be heard at our requiems, Raphael, the largest.
We seldom rang him. He was seldom heard.
Most often we rang him with his five brothers, such as during Easter.
He was so heavy that, if you held on to his rope, he would pull you up into the air, which was often the case when it was time for the bells to silence.
I had to put all my weight into stopping his momentum. He could lift me five feet up.
But Raphael was never rung for the monk’s requiem: He was tolled.
Tolling him was the most challenging task. But I believe it was also the most important.
Like Gabriel, I had to pull Raphael down to the point where he was about to make a sound, and then I let go of his rope, so that the bell tolled on the up swing.
You see: Only one other noise preceded Raphael’s tolling: It was the noise of a hammer nailing the deceased brother into his coffin.
Our coffins were simply wooden boxes. The lower half of the brother was always nailed up. The upper half was exposed for the rest of us to view.
Once our requiem ended, the upper half was nailed closed. The hammer striking the head of the nail was the only sound in the church.
Some brothers couldn’t stand that noise. It sent them running from the church in tears.
So tolling Raphael the right way was important. It was the last celebratory noise we’d make for that deceased brother.
It was the last send off. It told everyone within earshot: Here is a brother who meant something to us. Here is a brother who did his best. Here is a brother we loved and served and helped grow closer to God. Here is a brother who acted as a channel of God’s love for us.
Several brother monks would carry his coffin from our church to our churchyard, where a grave had already been dug.
For Brother Gabriel’s funeral, I worked hard to toll Raphael just right.
It was my way to say goodbye, and ask forgiveness for the times I failed him.