Up here at Mt. Angel trying to hold onto something from my two plus weeks in Mexico. The bells are ringing as I get out of my car and that means midday prayer is about to begin.
As I walk up the long path towards the church, I think about what Fr. Michael, the old retreat director, once told me: this is the path the novice walks when he joins the monastic community, and it is his final path when he is carried out to the cemetery by his brother monks. Heavy!
Different bells in the tower start to ring now as it gets closer to noon. The pitch changes, like a countdown.
What are these bells calling the monks to? What are they calling me to? What are they calling us to? What does it mean to surrender to the bells? How is this place relevant to how we are trying to get by in the world, right now? What is it telling us about what it means to be a human being?
It is a short service, maybe fifteen minutes. Thirty or so of the monks stand in the wooden choir stalls on the both sides of the altar. The liturgy consists mostly of them singing the Psalms and other songs from the bible. In the congregation, a dozen or so of us follow along, most silently, seminarians and a handful of visitors.
I am thinking of trips I took with my father to Gethesemani, the Trappist monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky. My dad loved that place. He drove up there frequently to sing and pray with the monks. It swallowed him up, participating in the music and the myth.
I don’t think I know how to participate in the same way, but I recognize that something special happens at this place too, and I accept the invitation of the bells as an opportunity to go inward and ask questions and see what happens.
I ask: What is this thing about? Why are we here?
In Sayulita I picked up a book at an odd little English bookstore run by ex-pats. It was a used copy of Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut, discarded from the Rye, NY Library. It had been checked out twice. I find Vonnegut easy and comforting to read and listen to. He holds the tension between optimism and deep depression. In the tragic gap!
Vonnegut was once asked to deliver a commencement address on the Meaning of Life, and he was so stumped, he asked his son for help. The dedication in Bluebeard was taken from his son’s response.
Besides Why are we here, I ask: Why am I here? What is my role?
A lot of people are asking this. Purpose. It’s a big piece of this thing that’s happening right now, this re-evaluation, the new assessment that’s happening to our country, our culture, ourselves.
The monks are singing now and the sound is echoing in the church like a bathtub. The chant has a medieval quality, ethereal and mournful and hopeful.
I find myself asking Mexico questions too, questions that come from being immersed in a culture so close but so far away from the way we are doing things. Questions like: What is the best way to live a human life? What is a wealthy, prosperous life?
I am confronted by the crucifix at the center of this place, and I ask questions about this, too. How is the Christ story relevant to us at this moment? How does it fit into our modern, global, ecumenical spiritual perspective? What is Jesus’s significance among Buddha, Moses, Lao Tzu, Mohammed, Yoda?
Joseph Campbell changed my perspective on the Christ story and the mystery of the crucifixion. Campbell grew up Roman Catholic but fell in love with other spiritual cultures and stories and became a leading scholar on Comparative Mythology. Campbell identified the common story in so many world stories as the Hero’s Journey, and the Christ story as a beautiful telling of it.
Campbell emphasized the story's power as metaphor, in contrast to history or theology. As he said in the wonderful Bill Moyers/PBS interviews recorded the year before his death, he was interested in “its con-notation, not its de-notation.” The Christ story remained Holy to Campbell, if not in its catechism, in its poetry.
I grew up Catholic, and we read the death/resurrection myth somewhat metaphorically, but sort of literally-metaphorically: Christ’s physical death mirroring our own physical death as Christians. Campbell asks what the story might mean for us now, while we are still alive, as Christians and non-Christians.
He believed that the story is filled with mysteries and clues that call us forward to adventure, and illuminate our journey.
Something about dying, but not dying? Why does it ask us to confront death? What sort of death does it point to? What/why are we afraid of dying/losing? What does it mean to embrace powerlessness? What does it mean that part of our self dies and a Higher Self rises to live on? When happens when you really let go, give up, have faith, surrender to the bells? What might Heaven on earth look like?
Beyond what it might mean for us individually, would could this story mean for us collectively, as a culture? What do we have to let go of in order to discover a higher version of ourselves?
The service ends and the monks slowly file out through a tunnel at the back of the church into some unknown place.
The church is almost empty now. Two women sit silently in a pew several rows in front of me. One comforts the other. They seem to be silently suffering through something together. The silence in the church magnifies the enormous silence. When one of the women walks to the lobby, the creak of the heavy oak door blares like a trumpet and echoes. She returns to sit beside her friend, and hands her a cup of water.