I spent the past week basking in Benedictine hospitality and writing at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. Snow falling steadily outside the windows added to silence within. The bells ring six times a day to call the monks and guests to common prayer. And then there was Dexter waiting for me on my Iphone. I went to the monastery to get away from distractions and to be able to focus on writing and mostly that is what I did, but I was also on vacation and I took several Dexter breaks. Each day. I have no explanation as to why I would find the escapades of a serial killer to be relaxing and entertaining. I felt guilty to be watching Dexter slicing and dicing his victims in such a sacred space, but guilt did not deter me. A group of Episcopalian priests were also at the monastery for a retreat on the art of hearing confessions. I shared mealtime with them but I did not mention Dexter.
In spite of the furtive breaks on my Iphone, I did get a lot of writing done and I did follow the bells to prayer. I was particularly drawn to the tradition of the Angelus, named for the angel Gabriel. The Angelus bells ring three times a day– morning, noon and evening, inviting a three-fold meditation on the incarnation. Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you…Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to Your Word…And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
The church I serve has bells, but the architect has warned us not to use them due to rotting wood. He feels that one more tug and the whole apparatus will come crashing down on the ringer’s head, so our bells remain quiet for now. At times, we have prayers with chant and silence like at the monastery, Our meditative Taize worship draws a small group looking for a respite from the fast, loud pace of our beloved city and sometimes the less dear parts of our inner lives. I announce that all phones should be turned off.
There is one other problem that we cannot turn off and that is our doorbell. We call it the doorbell, but it is actually a buzzer. The last time we had Taize prayer was on Wednesdays during Lent. We sat among the votive lights, breathing in the silence until someone began to stab at the buzzer over and over and over. Finally, it ended only to happen again, and then again. Stab! Stab! Stab! What an unwelcome assault on our quiet time!
Then I remembered that Wednesday is the night that volunteers prepare a special dinner for our young shelter residents and the meals are served an hour earlier than usual. The youth were ringing the doorbell, an intentionally loud buzzer so that it can be heard anywhere in the building, something it has in common with the monastery bells. Some medieval bells are inscribed with the opening words of the angelus prayer: Ave Maria. Gratia plena. Dominus tecum— “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.”
Down in the basement, volunteers have spread out tablecloths and someone is lighting candles. One by one, the young people come to the door and the buzzer rings. The door opens. Hail, DeeDee. Hail, Jayson. Hail, Tina. The room breathes grace. The Word has become flesh and the meal is ready.
Most angelus bells do not sound like our buzzer, but we make do with what is given to us. I miss the monastery silence, but I’m glad to be back.