I haven’t written a blog in quite some time, but recently someone smart and lovely said, “You should pick that up again.” I am a sucker for a good should.
Since writing last I have been spending a lot of time in contemplation, a kind of quiet, reflective series of practices inspired by the monks at the Catholic monastery I’ve taken to visiting regularly the last few years. (Perhaps next blog I will share the story of how a Jewish rabbi ended up being a regular visitor to a Trappist monastery.)
Suffice it to say the whole contemplative practice reminds me a lot of the kind of consciousness I had as an undergrad English major with a focus on poetry: a kind of noticing sensibility, keen for the lived myth and metaphor that actually shows up every day in our lives.
At the Abbey, as here is Suttons Bay, the church bell tolls regularly. Here in town the Lutheran, Congregation and Catholic churches all toll bells at regular hours, and there is a noon whistle every day except Sunday that tells me Karl will soon step through the door for lunch.
For awhile I downloaded a Buddhist meditation bell that would go off regularly on my computer at irregular intervals to remind me of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn’s practice at his monastery in France: no matter what you are doing (unless it is saving a life or saving someone from harm), you pause, enjoy three breathes and only then continue on your way. Eventually the bell on my computer was ringing so often it annoyed me deeply and I took it off my hard drive.
We don’t have bells in the Jewish tradition but we, like our Muslim sisters and brothers, have a call to worship. It is a moment in the service when some warm-ups have been completed and it is time to turn more deeply inward. This is what church bells have come to mean for now, livingly, oddly, in a community with no mosque or schul to call me to prayer: take a moment to turn inward. It’s time to pause and pay attention to this precious moment.
So one thing I have been working on lately is learning more about the religious traditions of my neighbors. Most of my teaching these days is in churches and with non-Jewish folks, but I am not usually there for the prayer services. We have 49 different denominations of churches here in northern Michigan, and my ultimate goal is to visit one of each.
One place I love is the Quaker (or better, Friends’) Meeting in Traverse City. At 9 a.m. they have an “unprogrammed worship,” which is an hour of silent sitting together in that beautiful building on 5th and Oak. I love the clarity and simplicity of this form of prayer. People only speak if they feel spirit moves them today, and the day I visited, we all just sat together in silence. It is a very refreshing, clear practice.
When I walked into the meeting house, I noticed a sign about how to ring the bells the right way and how to ring the bells the wrong way. I don’t remember the exact wording, but the upshot is that if you keep yanking the rope until you hear the bell ring, the rope is likely to get caught up in the bell and clapper, and then it won’t ring at all.
The right way to ring the bell is to pull the rope and pause, allowing the bell to makes its motion and be struck by the clapper, then you can pull the rope again, pause again, wait for the ring, and so on.
So often we are so rushed to reach some goal or objective that we do not take the essential pauses that allow the proper outcome to unfold. If you keep yanking the rope, all you’re going to get is a dull thud, a twisted rope and a climb to the steeple for your troubles. A little pause is all that is needed to let things proceed more beautifully.
So when the bells in Suttons Bay ring – rung properly and regularly here in town – let’s pause, create a moment of sabbath in our busy lives and let the echo of the bell give us permission simply to be.