Yesterday I was listening to the Mass bell at Belmont and suddenly I was a world away in time and place, in the ringing chamber at Stanbrook. A peal of eight bells for a Solemnity, six for a Second Order feast, five for Sundays and Third Order celebrations; twenty doubles and three straights for ferias; twenty straights for the second toll, irrespective of liturgical rank. I always loved ringing Steadman touches, but whoever was on bell duty had great latitude in her choice. Bells are precious things, anointed with chrism and named, for they summon Christians to the Work of God. Deep down I know I cherish the hope that one day Howton Grove Priory will have grown enough to have its own peal of bells, to ring out its joy and sorrow, possibly its moments of alarm (bells rung in reverse order), but always sounding to the glory of God, always summoning us to prayer.
Today’s feast shows us Mary acting rather like a bell, summoning us closer to her Son. Yesterday we decked the processional cross with bay leaves as a sign of Christ’s victory; today, a single candle burns in memory of her lonely fidelity. It is a reminder that God did not promise us a life of unalloyed happiness in this world. To be mother of the Messiah was, surely, every Jewish woman’s dream; but for Mary, that dream meant suffering and death as well as joy, resurrection and gladness. Every human life is a mixture. We tend to rage and rail at the messy bits, the painful bits, but every morning we begin again. Hope is a strange virtue in some ways but a very necessary one. It doesn’t lessen the sense of failure or rebellion we may feel, but it does help sustain our faith and prayer. So, think of bells again. One of George Herbert’s loveliest descriptions of prayer is ‘church bells beyond the starres heard’. Bells summon us to pray; they also summon God to listen.