by Rick Mansfield
First at 6:00 AM. Then again at Noon. And last, at 6:00 PM. Dusk at many parts of rural Europe, including the agrarian landscape of 19th century France. For centuries, bells were tolled at these times to punctuate the times of the day for a society that was largely without time keeping devices.
Wristwatches were yet to be invented and clocks of any kind were expensive. Though the pocket watch had then been around for more than three centuries, they were still beyond the means of the mostly peasant farm workers. Time in the fields was marked by the rising and setting of the sun when bells were not rung.
Bells had been heard across much of France for centuries. After the Norman conquest, they were rung to mark the evening curfew. Even then, most who heard them used then as a signal for a time of prayer.
Among Catholics, a prayer was recited called the Angelus. It was commonly a series of three Hail Mary’s and then a closing benediction. It was a time to reflect upon the blessings of God, the Holy Mother and Eternity.
About the same time that we here in America were dealing with the south’s views on nullification of Federal statute and just months from our own civil war, a French painter captured that moment of respite at the end of a day in the fields for poor workers.
Long a portrayer of the more common of French society, Jean-Francois Millet used the practice for one his more famous works of art. The Angelus became one of the most reproduced works of religious art in Europe in the 19th century. A couple can be seen standing in reverence with their tools idled and a small basket of potatoes at their feet at the end of a day in the fields.
This past week I was privileged to view the original in a traveling exhibit in the St. Louis Art Museum. It’s simple beauty was inspiring. Perhaps more so to me because one of my dear wife’s favorite pastimes is digging potatoes. Perhaps because of its celebration of working the soil; a thing much more rare in today’s more urban society. Hopefully, because it captures forever in time a practice dear to my heart.
Two people giving thanks. Presumably for God, the virgin birth and for that “peace beyond understanding” that can be ours when we obey His Gospel. Possibly for that basket of potatoes that will provide corporal nourishment. Maybe for the solitude and serenity of the pastoral setting in which they stand. I am sure for the blessing of each other.
The tolling of a bell is a sound mostly absent from much of rural America here in the 21st century. They can still be heard from church steeples if one is near enough; the electronic replications not carrying like the bucolic metal peals of the past. And this is generally only weekly; maybe two days at best.
Years ago the poet John Donne asked us that now famous question “For whom the bell tolls?” “Each man’s death diminishes me” he reminded us, for we are all “involved in mankind.” The tolling to which he referred was that done to announce deaths in years gone by.
If such a practice was to be resumed, it would be a non-stop cacophony for those unborn lives alone. Give the present state of our world, a thrice-daily remembrance of our blessings might well be in order. A reminder of our opportunities and obligations “for thee.” Thanks for joining us!