The Angelus, a well–known oil painting by the French artist Jean–François Millet, represents two farmers in a field, bowing over a basket of potatoes to say the Angelus prayer as the church bells ring in the distance.
The painting which dates back to the mid 1800s, depicts a deep sense of religious devotion which is directly correlated to the tolling of the bells.
On our recent ICC retreat which took place in Mount St Anne’s Retreat Centre in Portarlington, our group was shown an image of the “The Angelus” by our facilitator. We were invited to observe the scene and join the farmers in silence and stillness before God. The farmers had been working hard in the fields, but the toll of the bells invites them to stop and be still; it beckons them to prayer. The facilitator invited us to each consider when do we as individuals take time to stop at God’s invitation to pray.
The exercise generated a good discussion as many members of the group shared from their own experiences examples of what beckons each of them to take time out from the busyness of life to stop and pray.
As I listened to my colleagues whilst meditating on the painting, I found that my thinking was going in a completely opposite direction. I wasn’t thinking of the painting from the perspective of the characters in the foreground taking time out to pray. I was considering the painting from the perspective of the person in the bell tower, in the distant background, who was ringing the bells.
Allow me to put my cards on the table. I am a campanologist, a bell ringer, and I have been ringing the bells at a local church in Belfast for over 15 years. And from my perspective, when I am ringing the bells, I am not inviting people to pause and individually pray as suggested by the painting itself and correctly articulated by our facilitator. When I’m ringing, I am beckoning people to come away from their private spaces and their solitary prayers, to the space of the church to gather together as people of Christ in a congregation collectively praying and worshipping our Lord and Saviour.
For me, bell ringing is not simply an enjoyable pastime, though it most certainly is. For me bellringing is a call for mission. When it comes to prayer, there is great temptation for people to think in terms of individuality, to pray privately in a place and time of their choice. Most certainly, personal spirituality is very important; however, I also believe that Jesus Christ instituted the church, a corporate body where the Holy Spirit moves and works. It is when we come together collectively forming the body of Christ, with Jesus as the head, the Church is strengthened. According to St Paul, for the body to work, each member is important and has a part to play (Ephesians 4:16). Participating in Church strengthens each member and the church as a whole. Individual prayers are essential, collective prayer is powerful.
And so, when I look at “The Angelus,” my thoughts are with the person in the bell tower, summoning everyone with the beautiful sound of the bells, to stop what they are doing and go to church.