No, this is not some clever allusion to a monastery without walls. Nor is it iconoclasm gone wild. It is a simple historical fact, although historical facts are rarely simple. This week our monastery’s bells departed. The last time that they were taken away was to be melted down to make German armaments in the Second World War. This departure is for happier reasons, although not without its own traumas.
For those who don’t know, which probably includes most readers of this blog, our community is going to be moving next April. This blog is not intended as a community chronicle, but a major upheaval like this will probably make itself felt and I am rather dreading the actual logistics of moving. In the last few months the move has been becoming more real with regular photos of progress on the new buildings and a couple of visits to the site. People have been more than normally busy with sorting things out and getting rid of unwanted stuff. But until this week life had gone on more or less as normal.
But now the bells are gone. They have been taken to the bell foundry in order to be cleaned and tuned, or whatever one does to bells, before being built into the bell tower of the new monastery, which has to be finished before a certain date according to the building schedule. And so we have no bells anymore and are using a gong to signal the beginning of Office and so on.
Now I have nothing against gongs, in fact I even rather like them in a meditation space, or wherever. But they are not bells. This may simply be a matter of what one is used to, but they do not seem fit with our liturgy. The sound of a gong needs to fade away into silence, and not be followed by the organ. (Okay, so I am no fan of the organ either, but that is another story).
I mention this, not to complain about a temporary arrangement, but because the departure of the bells has made me realise once again the effect of physical things, of gesture, sound, smell and so on, on our lives. We take them for granted and yet they form part of our landscape that shapes us in deep if unknown ways. I once read of someone who moved from Cape Town to some American city who, when asked what he most missed about Cape Town, answered “the cry of the muezzin.” He was not Moslem, yet the call to prayer was an integral part of his environment. In the same way, we have had residents of our village complaining for months about how they will miss our bells.
And now it has happened. Everything that we knew intellectually about the process of moving was suddenly made very much more concrete this week. The landscape has changed; what we knew in theory has become more of a reality.