Wednesday, April 08, 2015

For whom doth the bell toll?

I wonder if you heard the bells rung during the Gloria on Maundy Thursday? It's certainly a bit of a wake-up call if you're not expecting it, but then, that's just what bells are for. They wake us up!

Working in a school, the day is punctuated by the ringing of bells. Of course, they are signals to the teacher and not signals to my students. They might object that since everyone can hear the bell that the bell is their signal to pack away and get ready to go. Yet, it is a matter of good discipline for students to wait until they are told before they move. Like Pavlov's dogs, when a schoolboy hears the bell, his hand instinctively reaches to close the pages on algebraic fractions. Since a schoolboy is in the process of becoming a rational, disciplined individual,  it is good for him to remember that he must remember that he is not at liberty to do as he pleases but must wait to receive instruction. 

It may seem rather an arbitrary and unnecessary piece of ritual, yet that ritual is part of the character forming that differentiates between a spoiled brat and a decent young person. We learn not by being attentive to the bell itself, but what the bell signifies. We have to ask for whom the bell tolls!

For Pavlov's dogs, the bell signifies the imminent arrival of food. Yet, those poor dogs were being treated appallingly (and I do mean appallingly) for Pavlov to reach his conclusion about conditioning. These dogs' mindless association of bell with food demonstrate that lack of thought but mere expectation. Human beings, in their understanding of their condition, ought to seek beyond the signal itself and its associations and see how they fit in with the whole thing rather than become slaves to mindless conditioning. I do not intend for any of my students to become mindless amoebas who live on the principle of stimulus-response. They need to see that the bell is indeed a signal to me to end my lesson and thus wait for me to finish that lesson as appropriate.

However, all this being said, I'd dearly love a watch or clock that would chime the monastic hours for me - not a digital or electronic device, a proper clockwork mechanism. Does this mean that I intend to condition myself to prayer at certain times of day? Have I now just undone my tirade against students who want to leave my lesson as soon as the bell goes?

The bells we use in Church, like the school bell, act as a wake-up call. They draw our attention to the time and thus bring us back to a stark reality that we need to be vigilant. The bells at the Consecration are there to call people's mind to focus on the sacramental presence of God. Just as the bell reminds a schoolboy to look to his teacher for guidance, so does the Church bell wake us to the necessity of looking to God. Too often, we allow our days to go by without such punctuation. We forget to set our alarms to call us to prayer. 

Perhaps I should be posting this on Advent Sunday, the annual wake-up call of the Church to the sleepers. Yet, here at Easter so far away in time and space from Our Lord's awaking from death, we should look to this great one-off, never to be repeated, Resurrection as our wake-up call to look at our lives as they are now and how H would want them to be. We must never become mindless as soon as we hear the bell toll, but allow that bell to ring us to our senses. 

John Donne was right. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee! But can you hear it ringing?


Andrew said...

It might be possible with modern technology - my phone rings the Angelus for me 3 times per day.

Warwickensis said...

Ah, but then you're a wise man, Father, able to bring things both old and new out of your repository. I'm more of a Luddite whose mobile phone just does calls and texts and is thick enough to hold the door open while I take the rubbish out.