Seven Bells

The cloister in Clapham is wide with a curved ceiling. A heating grate runs down along one side and wide windows flood the place with light. The floor is shiny marble bright. The shape of this main corridor in St Mary’s monastery reminds me of the London Tube and you could imagine a train coming along there any minute.

At one end of the cloister is the entrance to the sacristy and church, and at the other end high windows give a view of the outside world, the world of pavements and traffic and busy, passing people.

But here inside, the cloister is designed to allow silent bodies to walk up and down, reading prayer books or telling beads. In the days of its construction Redemptorist life was a silent affair, and the members were reminded, for all their apostolic noise outside, to be Carthusians while at home.

By the time I got there and certainly during later days things had changed drastically. People coming to the door used to be shown to a small parlour by the patient porter-brother, Brother Oswald, and a ‘Father’ would be summoned down from his room to attend to the ‘worldling’ come for help.

But as parish life grew greater and demands more frequent, the modern contraption of an electronic intercom was introduced. If communication could have been directly to the room concerned that would have been fine, but no. A Tannoy announcing system came into operation and every day we lived in the monastery as if we were on the forecourt of Euston Station, and every telephone call or ring at the door was announced all over the place.

The parish and the parish priest had become the focus of daily activity and the community, the rest of the residents were simply onlookers, or in this case on-listeners to the busy round of local demands. The silent house had become a busy interchange.

This transformation of life was summed up for me one evening as the clock ticked round to six pm. I happened to be standing at the end of the cloister near to the porter’s lodge. I heard the grandfather clock making its familiar clunking noise as it prepared itself to strike the hour, and sure enough at six it began to chime.

As it did so, Brother Thomas began to pull on the rope that ran heavenwards up to the roof of the monastery where an Angelus bell responded to his tugging and clanged the hour of prayer. While Thomas chimed away, down at the church end the altar boy rang the bell to announce the beginning of mass and as he did so somebody on the other side of the sacristy door rang the bell to ask for confession.

Up at the other end of the cloister the front door bell now rang as someone sought entry to speak to a priest and at the same time the back door bell rang because at six o’clock the poor men of the street were accustomed to come for soup and sandwiches. To bring this chiming to seven the telephone decided to ring.

I stood there in the cloister as seven bells rang around me and I thought to myself…is it me?

Brian Fahy
15 July 2017

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