Summertime, 804 AD, England
Father Ekkehard was a kindly man. He had been the abbot for our small monastery probably longer than I had been alive. This morning he saw that I was out of sorts, and he pulled me aside for a discussion. In a small community like ours, it was not good to allow frustrations or animosity to fester. Father Ekkehard was a master at spotting potential discontent or conflict and heading it off before it could grow and fester. He truly did have a shepherd’s heart.
“It isn’t you, Father,” I said in response to his query. “Nor is it any of our brothers that is bothering me. It is the bell.”
He motioned for me to go on. I was the youngest novice at the monastery. I left my father’s home in the adjacent village to take up orders only a few weeks before. I was still learning to adapt. It was one thing to know how the monks ordered their life. It is quite another to order your own life the same way.
“Living in the village, the ringing of the bell was background music,” I said. “Yes, we would hear it and schedule our day around it, but here it is different. It is closer. Those infernal bells are just so much louder.”
“I’m sorry, Father. I meant no disrespect.”
“Then you should choose your words with more wisdom and care. Please, continue.”
“There really isn’t anything more. Those bells here just seem so much more obtrusive than when I was living in the village.”
“These bells are how we order our lives. Is it really those bells, or is it this life here at the monastery that is the heart of the problem?”
I had to think about that one. “No, Father Ekkehard. It isn’t this life. Really, when I think about it, most of the time, the bells themselves do not vex me so. It is only their ringing for Matins and Lauds.”
Father Ekkehard leaned back in his seat and gave me a knowing smile. “This is a natural thing. You enjoy your sleep. So do I. So do we all. Sleep is a good, necessary, and important part of our life. But the very purpose of the bells at those times is to wake us from our slumber. They call us out of our natural life, and they point us toward the supernatural.”
We talked a bit further about some tips and strategies I might find useful for managing my sleep and for how I might better adapt to these early morning hours of prayer. Apparently, nearly all of the new novices had trouble adapting to this issue. It was good to know that I was not alone in my discomfort. When it was time to go our separate ways, Father Ekkehard gave me a parting challenge. When I hear those bells calling us to prayer for Matins, I should declare that my desire for God is greater than my desire for sleep or any other thing of this world. It is true. My desire for God is first and greatest. But sometimes, it is hard to remember that when I am waking long before the sun.
Later that day, about an hour after Sext, I heard the bells again. They were ringing at the wrong time. This time it was not the normal sound the bells usually make. It was a loud, persistent clanging that did not end. A cold fear settled into every fiber of my being. This ringing was not a call to prayer but a dire warning. Norse raiders, Vikings, had been spotted coming our way.
At the time, I was down by the estuary. A few other monks were with me, and we were checking over the fish traps. We immediately reset them in the water and hurried back inland. Partway between the monastery and village, there is a strong palisade. It had been built as a protection against the Norse raiders for both the village and the monastery. My fellow monks had the greatest distance to travel and were some of the last people to crowd into this defense.
Being the young and impetuous man that I am, I nudged and jostled my way from the gate to a good viewing spot along the wall. Nearby I saw Father Ekkehard also looking out towards the water. He nodded at me and then returned to his watch. We saw three Norse ships coming toward us from the horizon. Two slowed and turned slightly while the third came closer to investigate. This third ship came to a stop just outside the range of our bows. Their rowers expertly held the craft in place despite the strong current. Eventually, it backed away, and the three boats regrouped, heading upriver in search of easier prey.
A couple of the young men from the village would be out there tracking the boat’s progress until they were safely beyond us. Before joining the monastery, I had been one of those assigned to that task. The rest of us would spend the evening huddled together. We would remain safe behind these walls until word reached us from those boys.
As we settled down to wait, Father Ekkehard nodded toward my muddy feet and sandals. “I’m guessing you don’t think those bells are so infernal now, do you?”
“The bells call us from the natural to the supernatural, but there is another purpose they have served today. They warn us to be alert to the enemy.”
“Yes, Father. If not for those bells, I would not have known that a raiding party was a-viking. Down by the traps, we would have never seen them in time. We would all now be slaves.”
“Praise God that has not happened today.”
“The next time those bells ring for Matins, keep that in mind. Just as the bells rang to warn us of physical enemies, so do the bells ring for prayer that we might be alert to our greater enemy. He also prowls around like a Norse ship seeking whom he might devour.”
I was pretty that Father Ekkehard was taking liberties with the scripture, but I dared not call him out on it. Besides, I have never seen a lion except in pictures. It is difficult to know how much of what I see in those pictures is nothing more than the artist’s imagination. I would venture to guess most of those artists were other monks just as sheltered and naive as I was. However, a ship going a-viking was a familiar sight that strikes fear in all who live near the sea.
We were pulled out of our discussion when we noticed a growing commotion over at the north end of the palisade. It seemed that Agnete was going into labor. Her husband was in a panic as the other women kept trying to shoo him away to give space for the midwife.
“Come,” Father Ekkehard said. “It appears that we have a nervous young father to settle down. He is not much older than you, and I would appreciate your help.”
Father Ekkehard and I drew Godwin away. A few other men from the town, some of his closest friends, also joined us. It seemed that Agnete was going into labor a few weeks early. The excitement of the raider ships and the fast trek up the hill from the town seemed to speed this birth along. As is his way, Father Ekkehard’s presence helped settle the father-to-be. It was good, too, because the rest of us would have done the opposite if we had been left to our devices. We all had memories and stories of difficult or fatal pregnancies, and each wanted to share theirs. One sharp look from the elderly abbot put a quick and early stop to that. He might be a kindly old man, but he could still inspire fear when necessary.
Now and then, one of the women would come over and give us an update. It seemed that every update consisted of little more than, “All is well, and the midwife says this is a normal delivery.” Normal it might have been, but swift it was not. We sat and talked and sat and talked for hours that dragged on for an eternity. Time seems to slow the most when one’s anticipation is the greatest. The sun set below the western wall of our wooden palisade, and still, we waited. The stars came out, and crickets could be heard over the soft conversations of various clusters of men and women. Every few minutes, those crickets and conversations both ended as Agnete’s cries rang out once again. I always thought of her as a soft-spoken woman, but that night my illusions were shattered. You could see from the way he sat on his hands and looked toward the women that it was all Godwin could do to keep from joining them. Not that he would have made it that far. One of his best friends was Edwin, the smith, and the big burly man had strategically placed himself between Godwin and the crowd of women around his young bride.
Sometime after dusk, smoke was spotted to our northwest. The Vikings had found their prey. We all were half relieved it was not us and half fear and pity for whoever it might have been. We all knew people who lived in that direction. Speculation was raised as to whose homes or which village had been hit. But between the darkness and the intermittent clouds, it was impossible to guess with any accuracy. None of us slept. We knew that those three ships would almost certainly be returning our way as they made their journey back to the sea. There was better than even odds that they would still be looking for more plunder.
About a half-hour before dawn, one of the weary boys came running up to tell us that the danger had passed. They had followed the three ships back past the town and out to sea. Most of the townsfolk and monks returned to their homes. The midwife refused to move Agnete, however, and so Godwin also refused to stray too far. That meant we men continued our vigil.
Finally, after a particularly violent round of huffing and puffing, screaming and shouting, the sound of women’s laughter was heard. Almost immediately after, it was the hearty wail of a baby’s cry that brought a smile to all our weary faces. Two of the boys had been pressed into joining us men for just this moment. One ran off towards the town and another towards the monastery.
Father Ekkehard was exhausted and leaning on me as we made our slower trek back down to the monastery ourselves. We were about halfway there when the bells from the church started ringing out again. He stopped and smiled.
“That is the most beautiful sound those bells can make, don’t you think, Willem?”
I nodded, and he continued.
“They are ringing in the joy of new birth. This is why we associate bells with Christmas. They ring out the coming of the birth of God’s Son. He was born that we also might be born again. There is no sweeter music than the ringing in of a newborn birth, and there is no sweeter birth than that of the Christ child.
Silver bells, silver bells
It’s Christmas time in the city
Ring-a-ling, hear them ring
Soon it will be Christmas day
City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas
Children laughing, people passing
Meeting smile after smile
And on every street corner you hear
Silver bells, silver bells…
Strings of street lights, even stoplights
Blinkin’ bright red and green
As the shoppers rush home with their treasures
Hear the snow crunch, see the kids bunch
This is Santa’s big day
And above all this bustle you hear
Silver bells, Silver bells…