Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

The Emptiness of Bells

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Christmastide is officially over. Gifts have been given, carols sung, food eaten. With a few intentional exceptions, the Christmas decorations have been taken down and stored away for another year. (A friend of mine declared recently, “I’m surprised how much the Christmas lights feed my inner spiritual joy. The ceramic houses that light up…will be featured until at least Candlemas…possibly even Shrove Tuesday!”)

Yet I can’t help but reflect on a continued sense of “fullness” from the Christmas season. Our hands were filled with gifts, our ears and hearts with carols, our stomachs with food. All of that is good—as far as it goes. But the problem is that we have so filled the season of Christmas with events and activities and material things that we are often filled to the bursting point.

I found myself, one recent afternoon, sitting in the wan winter sun in our living room, just wanting to let go. I wanted to release all the stuff and busyness and accumulated sense of accumulation. I was aching for emptiness, stillness, and silence.

As I sat in the silence, I found myself reflecting on an article I had just edited. The article spoke of a series of bells that represented different aspects of the spiritual life, but as I sat on the couch, I found myself thinking instead about how bells must be empty in order to resonate with sound.

dsc_0304-bell-ringing-cropI have seen many different kinds of bells, from all over the world, during the course of my life. I’ve rung a huge bell in Korea, taller than me, using a large external log suspended on chains. I’ve held in my hand tiny bells from the Middle East that encase small round balls that ring the bells when they are shaken. I often use a Tibetan singing bowl as an aid to meditation, and have awakened to the sound of church bells soaring over the Italian countryside.

All of those bells share one thing in common: they must be empty, or nearly so, in order to freely resonate. Anything cluttering up the inside of the bell will cause a hollow thunk rather than a resonant, sonorous ring.

Winter is often considered a season of slowing down and letting go. In the wake of a full Advent and Christmastide, what might you need to release during these winter days? Where in your life might you need to foster emptiness? What keeps you from resonating?

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