Page 5, 3rd January 1997

3rd January 1997
Page 5
Page 5, 3rd January 1997 — For whom the bells should toll

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For whom the bells should toll

MELANIE MCDONAGH THERE ARE some elements in Catholicism which are so obvious, you miss them. I was, for once in my life, early to a Sunday evening Mass, and just before it started, one member of the congregation, a devout lady, stood up and led us in reciting the Angelus. It was, to my shame, the first time I had said it for ages. And I was struck, almost for the first time, by the beauty of the words and their profundity.

The Angelus has a place in my formation as a Catholic, as it does, I suppose, for anyone who had the good fortune to be educated by nuns. RTE, the Irish television station, shows a holy picture, usually the Annunciation, for a minute at six, and it plays a distinctive recording of tolling bells as it does so. This is now a disputed feature of the network's output in the great, ongoing debate about whether Ireland is now officially a post-Catholic country. Personally I think that to expose viewers to beautiful examples of one of the most popular themes in the Western canon of art and, without words, to draw attention for a minute to a time of prayer, is probably one of the least offensive kinds of sectarianism conceivable. I cannot imagine a Protestant finding it offensive, less, perhaps, than they might be to have the national anthem played after the day's broadcasting.

But when the bells tolled at night, just before the news, we used to jump to our feet and there would be a rush to see who would be the first to give out the prayer. It was a matter of pride not actually to say the Angelus properly, but rather to rush through it at breakneck speed, so as to be finished well before the news came on. Naturally we did not dwell on the words; just saying it was what mattered.

And one nun at school used to make clear that the Angelus was very, very important for a Catholic identity. She recalled with pride one of her pupils, whose mother kept a lodging house where you would get foreigners staying on their holidays; the girl, on hearing the Angelus bell, would jump to her feet and recite it, no matter who was there. And, the nun said, you would get all the foreigners looking at her when she did so. It was a kind of public witness to faith, like blessing yourself as you passed a church. Actually, I rather agree with her, though I would tend to keep my recitation of the Angelus to myself.

But the beauty of the Angelus is that it recalls us to the one essential of faith, the Incarnation. It is, of course, a meditation on the awful truth that God became man, the one thing that matters about Christianity. We bang on so much about faith in terms of morality we forget it is essentially about what we believe; good conduct is a by-product of faith, not the point of it. And the bigness of the dogma of the Incarnation is so remarkable, it does no harm for us to be obliged to dwell on it.

The other beauty of the Angelus, which, of course, should be said at the hours of six and twelve, is that it is routine, or should be. It is not an impulse prayer, but one whose time comes round whether we like it or not. Spontaneous prayer has a lot going for it,• but it often happens that we don't feel like praying. Just occasionally a prayer that asks to be said when we hear the tolling of bells calls us back to our true selves, and redeems us for a minute from the exigencies of the world around us.

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