Posted March 24, 2006 in Lent and Easter, and in Word Made Flesh:
Sister Ruth and the Bells

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

I love bells—bells of every kind: ding-bells, dong-bells, bing-bells, and especially booooooong-bells. Bells can be a sign of hope and a source of life. They certainly were for me when I was growing up.

Three times a day, no matter where I was, whether out on my 6 a.m. paper route, or waiting for school to recess at noon, or trying to get home from work on time for 6 p.m. supper, the bells of the Angelus rang to remind me that all was well because The Lady said, Let it be done, to the Angel Gabriel, and the Word became flesh.

Bells have helped me out in something recently, too. I had always been struck by the paradox of celebrating the great feast of the Annunciation during the penitential season of Lent.

I knew it all fit together, but whenever I come across this kind of liturgical paradox, my mind goes into overdrive. I am a bit of a doubting Thomas until I remember a specific way that it all fit together for me. This time, I found my answer in bells.

When I was a lad, Lent officially ended with the noon Angelus on Holy Saturday. That was the time when all the fasting was over and the feasting began.

The noon Angelus had hardly stopped ringing before all the candies and treats we had put aside during our Lenten fast came out of our treat-bags by the handful. Lent is over! Happy Easter! Alleluia! Alleluia! (Chocolate! Chocolate!)

So one Lent when a certain idea came up, I was all for it. I was about 13. One of my friends said, “Why don’t we push the church clock ahead half an hour and end Lent early this year?” “Great idea!” “Who said that?” No matter. We could see the treat-bags already.

However, suggesting it and doing it were two different things. But since we were “men,” we did the manly thing. We drew straws. (You guessed it. I got the short one. Ding dong!)

Long-story-short: the conspiracy failed. I got caught trying to force the lock on the door to the belfry. I was turned over to my pastor for trial and sentencing. I pleaded guilty and was sentenced to help the janitor and Sister Ruth clean the church every Saturday morning that summer—all summer long!

So every Saturday at noon, it was the Angelus that tolled and ended my sentence for that week. That bell was also a reminder that I could have been earning my spending money that summer by mowing people’s lawns on Saturday mornings like my “Lenten” friends who never got caught. Boooong. Boooong, Boooong.

On the last Saturday of my sentence, Sister Ruth, one of my very favorite teachers, asked me, “Did you learn your lesson, Patrick?” “Yes, Sister.” “What was it?”

I repeated what the pastor and my father had told me at the “trial”—all about respect for other people’s property, the seriousness of doing such dangerous things, and that the church is not a playground but a holy place.

“I thought you said you wanted to be a priest some day,” Sister said. I wasn’t prepared for that remark from her under the circumstances. “I do, Sister. I think.” “Well, if you don’t learn this lesson, you probably shouldn’t be a priest.”

That’s all I remember her saying. But she must have said more. For it wasn’t until years later that I learned that the lesson she was talking about wasn’t one of the ones I had recited to her that day.

After I was ordained, I would often visit her in the community motherhouse where she was retired because of ill-health.

On one such visit while we were reminiscing about the good ole days at St. Mary’s in Huntington, Indiana, I asked her if she remembered the incident of the bells and her question, “Did you learn your lesson yet?”

She smiled and said, “Did you?” “I don’t know,” I said. “I learned many lessons from that incident, so I’m not sure there was a lesson to be learned.”

She then proceeded in the most ordinary and joyful way to share with me the lesson she herself had learned in the first years of her very difficult novitiate and the one she had tried to teach all her students, including me.

It was so clear then when I listened to her tell it those many years after the incident of the bells. And it seemed so easy. But my own life had already proven otherwise: it is not obvious and it is not easy.

She told me that her favorite moment of the day, after the Mass, was the Angelus. She said that no matter where she was and no matter what her state of soul and mind, when she heard those bells and prayed the Angelus, yesterday’s pain, tomorrow’s fear, and today’s suffering fell into perfect order.

No need to change anything, she said, or to make anything else happen. Just let it be done to me according to your word (Lk 1:38). Period.

She had tried to teach us kids how that could become the focus of our lives so that we could be free no matter where we were, with whom, or what was happening in our lives.
Then she said to me “I’ve never had a sad day since I learned that, Fr. Patrick. Difficult, yes, but not sad.”

I have never forgotten Sister Ruth, but I am still learning that lesson.

And one of my first significant memories of that lesson-to-be-learned was indeed back when we wanted to turn the clock forward and usher in Easter on our own.

Our desire and efforts to be in control begin early on in our lives and continue whenever life as it is, faith as it is, history as it is, or people as they are, are not what we want, or need, or are willing to deal with.

And in today’s culture, when anyone reaches that state, all they have to do is learn how to climb the techno-political tower, pick the lock, turn the clock forward or backward depending on their need or whim, and get on with life as they want it to be! They call it “a new age.”

Sister Ruth tried to teach us, even as youngsters, that respect for other people’s property, responsibility for dangerous actions, and the fact that the church is not a playground but a holy place, are the mere beginnings of the real lesson to be learned.

Something far more radical must become normal in our everyday life, something as radical as a virgin giving birth to a baby. It can only be learned from years and years of responding to life, to faith, to people, to history, to God and man, from within the discipline of, Let it be done according to your word.

No attempts to hurry things up or slow them down. No ploys to sidestep anything or move around it. No. Let it be done. Period!

As I watched Sister Ruth in those final years of her life, I realized that that’s the way she had always lived. I just didn’t see it soon enough. And after she died I often asked her to pray that I learn it too.

I miss the bells of the Angelus as they used to be rung. It was good to be reminded three times every day at critical moments, “Let it be. Just let it be, Pat. God will do the rest.”

Yet even now, when I hear a bell sound, whether it’s a little “ding” or a louder “bing,” it sometimes stirs me as much as the bells of the Angelus used to. I don’t know why.

It happened again the other night when I accidentally struck the edge of my metal chalice with a glass cruet as I was preparing for Mass: binnnnnnnnnnnng.

The whole room was filled with a wonderful sound. I just stood there in my vestments and tapped the lip of the chalice with the cruet again and again:

Binnnnnnng, Binnnnnnng.

Binnnnnnng. Let it be done.

And there it was—my own Lenten journey all wrapped up in that tiny sound. Let it be done according to your word.

When things get too messy or too mysterious, just put your hand in the hand of our Lady and repeat after her: Let it be done to me according to your word.

Don’t try to fix it. Don’t try to change it. Don’t try to make it fit your plans and expectations. Let it be done. Binnnnnnng. Let it be done. Binnnnnnng. Let it be done.

You knew that all the time, didn’t you, Sister Ruthie?


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