Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Column: Rending the oak tree and stripping the forest bare

Not only the church, but my whole body literally shook with the power of these bells. And they went on and on...

More on the historic churches of Singapore here.

The photo is of the bell at Mission San Antonio in California.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 11 November 2010.

The Lord’s voice shaking the wilderness, the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh; the Lord’s voice rending the oak tree and stripping the forest bare. — Ps. 29:8-9

From the street it looked just like any other city parking lot, with its glass enclosed attendant and ticket machine. A small sign on the gate, “SS. Peter and Paul. Lot closes at 9 p.m.,” was the only indication I was in the right spot. I crossed the parking lot to the old stone church set back from the street, its steeple dwarfed by the high-rises that surrounded it.

I walked up the steps and into the church, where I was promptly stunned by what the small stone facade had concealed. The white-washed plaster walls, the arcing dome overhead and the floor to ceiling side windows, open to let in even the smallest breeze in Singapore’s tropical heat, created an illusion of infinite space. The entire place seemed to breathe life into the words of the creed: “God from God, Light from Light.” The triptych of stained glass windows high above the altar were like glowing jewels in the late afternoon sun.

I slid into a pew and knelt. The sultry air encouraged stillness, and I surrendered to the quiet in front of the tabernacle, listening for the small, still voice of God in this place.

Suddenly the silence was battered by a great clamor of bells. The very church shook. They rang and rang and rang, calling the faithful to worship with full voice for more than five minutes. When the pealing at last ceased, the air still seemed to shimmer with the sound.

As I knelt under that torrent of sound, I thought of the images the psalmist uses in Psalm 29: The voice of the lord shaking the earth, and stripping the forest bare — the voice of the Lord, full of power.

For more than 1,500 years, bells have been the voice of the Church, in weal and woe, warning of danger and announcing celebration. I generally think of bells as a summons, as an invitation to a gathering whose reason is yet a mystery. Just as St. Francis Xavier’s hand bell intrigued passers-by enough to come hear what he had to say about the Gospel, I still look around for the church when I hear bells ring, wondering what news they are announcing.

Yet this deluge of sound did more than summon — even amidst the noise of the city — it reverberated with power and might. This is the voice, reflected St. Augustine, “that stirred to faith the peoples who were once without hope and without God in the world, where no prophet, no preacher of the word of God was to be found…” This was a voice that could shatter despair and shake life into stones in the desert.

The bells are more than the voice of God calling us to prayer, to come and hear. This is a call to be changed by a Voice that has an effect here and now. A Voice that makes manifest His strength, shaking me out of my complacency, stripping me of my own words, and putting His own Word to work within me.

O God of justice, hear our cry and save us. Make us heed your word to the prophets; rouse us to the demand of the gospel and impel us to carry it out. Amen. — From the Opening Prayer for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

1 comment:

  1. My childhood church bells played a tune that when I hear always takes me back. got the postcard today, you had the address off by 3.