In the seminary in Kuching, there is a timekeeper, who rings a five minute warning bell before morning and evening prayers – he walks from the chapel, round the cloister and back again, ringing a small bell and I have been sometimes grateful for this, not having noticed it was time for prayer. The other evening, however, I was already in chapel, when the time-keeper set out on his walk, but I could see that everyone was already there and I wondered, “whom is he ringing the bell for?’
I was the first rector, here, when the seminary was started, nearly thirty years ago, and at that time, there were no mobiles phones to wake you up in the morning, so we appointed a student to walk round ringing a bell to make sure everyone got to chapel on time and, because young men can sleep deeply, this was a real service at the time and often still is, but things like bell-ringing can turn from service into habit – and that is not always a good thing.
This is not to condemn habit. The good acts of service that I decide I want as part of my life, need to be made into habits, for life would be too demanding, if I had to think about and decide on every little act of love before I did it. However, there is also a problem here, for although habits can help me grow in love, they can also become my prison, locking me into an arid routine, which can slowly degenerate into selfishness or indifference. For people change and situations change and what was appropriate and healthy at one time of life can become stultifying as time passes. We need to regularly review our habits, lest we become more attached to what we do rather than those we are supposed to be doing them for.
When we begin our Christian life, we choose the direction we want our lives to take. However, at the beginning, this is often couched in negative terms – “I wont steal”, “I wont hurt people”, “I wont lie” etc. This is a great way to begin – and maybe, even, the only way – but if we do not re-visit these habits of thought and regularly re-work them, they can cut us off from the very love of God that they were supposed to bring us into. For, fundamentally, the Christian life is not about avoiding wrongdoing, but about doing something right – letting ourselves be drawn into caring with God as he reaches out to all. Habits can help us care for those with on-going needs, but they cannot deal with new situations and new needs.
So, ‘What kind of bell-ringer am I? Do I ring my bell, but am ready to change time and place according to the needs of others? Or, has my belling-ringing become just a habit, without any real reference to those for whom I wanted to care? If it is the latter, then my reward will be the self-satisfaction that I have done what I wanted – but that will be all. If, however, my habits are a real way of caring , a way which I review and change according to time and place, then love will be my reward – a love which will grow and flourish and bring me a richness that will last long past the time when such habits are still necessary.
Fr Terry Burke