Of Bells and O’Clock

I miss the bells. I miss walking through a cathedral town and hearing the bells, sometimes chiming the quarter hours, always chiming the hours, calling the faithful to prayer in the morning and evening.


These are real metal cast bells – such as our iconic Liberty Bell- not electric carillons such as were more common here in the United States (even those have increasingly gone quiet due to concerns from neighbors about “noise”). These are bells that are still often pulled by hand, ringing changes across the town and countryside. When we stayed at Gladstone’s Library in Wales, the room of one of our students was right across the church yard from the bell tower of the parish church. The bell ringers were practicing for a wedding and rang changes for several hours on end. Those tolling bells took a toll on our poor student’s mental health!

Most simply the bells mark the passing of time. Biblical Greek has two words for time: chronos, which is clock time, and kairos, which is time measured in opportunity or season. Medieval church bells measured both.

Before mechanical clocks were invented, time was measured by splitting day and night into segments depending on the progress of the sun across the sky. So daytime hours in the summer were much longer than daytime hours in the winter (The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer, p. 84). You think we have problems with daylight savings and standard time! 

Medieval monks kept the hours of prayer, 8 times a day, roughly every three hours (as measured by the clock or “o’clock”). Bells would ring out at those times to remind the monks, and invite others, to prayer. The bells announced it was kairos time for prayer, an opportunity awaited those who would come to the church and join in.

In the 14th century more and more church bells were connected to mechanical clocks. Now everyone could keep track of the hours, even if they were too poor to own a clock. Chronos time began to take over kairos time.

As our daytime hours become much shorter this November, I remember our stays in Salisbury, looking out of our window across the Cathedral Close to the tallest church spire in England, and hearing the bells toll for Evensong. By 5:30, daylight was gone. Hearing the invitation from the bells, we would cross the grass and enter the hushed sanctuary, dimly lit and awaiting the prayers and songs of the faithful.

During this Thanksgiving season, I think of Paul’s words to the church at Colossae: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Col. 4.2). He goes on to say, “Make the most of every opportunity” (there’s that word, kairos). 

May we all be grateful, watchful, alert for the opportunities, no matter what time of day, that we have to share love and gratitude with each other.

Too bad we don’t have more bells to remind us….

The bell tower at Taizé

“For All the Saints…”

This time last year we were in Cappadocia, Turkey. We had an amazing tour there, seeing the cave churches and monasteries, visiting the hometowns of the great Church Fathers: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianus. In this part of the world with truly weird and wonderful landscape, we stayed in the most unusual and luxurious

hotel I have ever been in (or probably ever will be!). The Museum Hotel, as many of the hotels in the area, is built right into the side of cliffs and caves, so the rooms are a honeycomb of chambers carved into the sandstone. Unlike caves in Minnesota, these caves are dry (although every day I had to sweep a bit of sand off the bed which seemed to be coming from the ceiling…).

But the best part of our stay was our guides, Emil and Betul. They are our daughter-in-law’s parents who live in Istanbul. They had arranged the entire trip for us. Since they had been to Cappadocia many times, they were able to take us directly to the most interesting sites. Since they are native speakers, they could help us with any questions or needs we had. Since they are both friendly and hospitable we experienced hospitality and friendship with many restaurant owners, shop keepers and even the care givers of some of the historic sites.

One of the most memorable tours we had was in Urgup at the site of a former monastery and seminary from the 8th century. The care taker that took us around had memorized the tour in about four languages by listening to a tape created by a professor in Istanbul. So he would capably move us in and out of caves, explaining the living situation, chapels, dining halls, etc. in English. But he couldn’t answer questions because he really only spoke Turkish! I was amazed at how well he gave the tour.


But, of course, Emil and Betul could speak with him. So after the tour, the man and his wife invited us to sit and have tea at their picnic table near where they tended crops and lived (when the weather was warm – they had a home in town for the winter). Emil and Betul brought out food Betul had cooked back home in Istanbul. Even though Dan and I couldn’t talk with this humble caretaker and his wife, we enjoyed his warm hospitality.

On this All Saints Day, 2018, I think of our visit to Turkey and our knowledgeable and capable guides. That is what the saints in the Christian faith are for us. The saints have gone before us, they know the journey of faith, they are experienced. They speak the language of God and can smooth the way before us, if only we will seek their wisdom and heed their guidance. And we can do both through the writings so many of the saints have left us. As we sojourn through this life, strangers on the earth, looking for a country of our own (Hebrews 11.13-14) the saints are reliable guides, informed by Scripture, illuminated by the Holy Spirit. They can make the trip much more interesting and secure through their wisdom and hospitality.

So today, I am thankful for “all the saints who from their labors rest,” whether they have been canonized by the Church or live in our hearts and minds as great examples of what it means to be pilgrims on this earth.

“Houston, We Have a Problem…”

“Houston, we have a problem…” is the classic statement that somehow things have slipped out of our control. As if we ever really had control in the first place.

When traveling, especially with 18 college students, we try very hard to avoid unpleasant surprises. My husband plans the days almost to the minute: when and where the coach will pick us up, how long we’ll stay at different destinations, where we can eat lunch (or have “tea and toilets”), when we need to start back to be in time for our next meal, how much money students may need for any period of time – the list could go on and on.

And yet there are bound to be surprises. The bus is late picking us up. It takes much longer to get to our destination due to the traffic tie ups on the infamous M25 (just don’t go anywhere near London from Friday through Sunday and you’ll be ok). The cafe is closed for the season. The tea shop is too crowded. The weather is…well, the weather is BRITISH which means mist, rain, sprinkles, drizzle, clearing skies then hail and back to mist. Here was the weather forecast for more than one day in 2017: “rainy with sunny intervals and times of cloud and mist.” Thank you very much.

We are not in control.

A year ago we visited Stourhead, one of the most breath taking estates in England. As we walked through the grounds, each view slid into another amazing vista, often intentionally framed by shrubs or trees, windows in grottoes or arches in purpose built “temples.” But the day was alternately drizzly, rainy and then misty. Not perfect. And not in our control. Funny thing is I remember the beauty. Until I looked back at the photos I had forgotten how wet my feet were, how I kept taking off my glasses to wipe them so I could see, how I had to keep putting the umbrella up and down.

Traveling in the mode of pilgrimage should remind us that we are not in control. Once we slip out of our comfortable routine, we realize how few of the very important things in life we can control: our health, our safety, the health and safety of those we love. Unexpected things happen (there’s another phrase for that…).

Pilgrimage reminds me that I am not in charge. Pilgrimage reminds me that each day is a gift, even if the weather is not what I would prefer. Pilgrimage reminds me that the people with whom I travel are the most important part of any day.

The often quoted words of St. Paul seem especially appropriate: “I know what it is to be in need, and what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether all fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4.12-13)

Great Expectations

Last year most of the destinations in England and beyond were places I had journeyed to before. There’s some comfort in knowing a bit more about what to expect – how’s the food, where’s the shower, where’s a good place to go for a walk or get lunch? But sometimes expectations dull our sense of newness and wonder at visiting somewhere we’ve never been before.

My two grandchildren (22 and 21 months old) wonder at all kinds of things: jet planes in the sky on the flight path to O’Hare, pine cones lying on the sidewalk, raspberries on the bush, puddles of water on the sidewalk, ants crawling along a wall…the list goes on and on. They are wide open to notice and wonder.

Our adult expectations are a way to deal with the world. We expect planes to fly overhead, in fact we can find them noisy and annoying. We expect pine cones under pine trees, berries on bushes, etc. Nothing new under the sun for us.

Except when we travel! Then we see things anew. Food tastes different (and hopefully better!). We marvel at new flora and fauna, at far away vistas, vast sea shores. We see ancient buildings (or modern!) unlike any we’ve ever seen. We hear a polyglot of languages. A European city may even smell different – more diesel, more cigarette smoke, different garbage! Somehow it becomes charming, interesting and picturesque.

The challenge is to stay open to what God is up to every day, wherever we are. In 2015 I wrote about my visit to Amiens Cathedral. Ho hum, another dusty old cathedral. What I found woke me up and defied my limited expectations.

Original labyrinth from 1200s at Amiens

I’ve been trying to reflect on the things and people that Jesus noticed as he walked through his life. He often picked out people to help that others never even noticed (like the bent over woman of Luke 13.11-13 or the poor widow of Mark 4.42). Jesus had a sense of wonder and expectations attuned to look for what his Heavenly Father was up to. First he paid attention to God and then walked through life noticing what and who others missed.

A good experiment for this week – walk out the door as if you’ve never been to this town before! Expect to learn something with every encounter. Ask Jesus to open your eyes to see people and the world the way he does. Then pay attention! You never know what you might encounter, beyond your wildest expectations.

Taking Care of Stuff

It’s a cliche that we live in a consumerist society as fish live in water. So what happens when you carry in two suitcases what you need for three and a half months? Of course you discover that most of your life you have lived with a lot more STUFF than you will ever need.

People ask how we ever pack for a trip that stretches from late August to early December. Basically I have about 5 pairs of trousers (please don’t call them pants in England – that’s underwear), 7 or more shirts, 3 warmer layers, a couple of shoes, a couple of jackets. Oh, and lots of underwear and socks of course! Toiletries, a few books…that’s it.

I do pick stuff up along the way. I always buy a mug (yes, a China mug that I have to carefully protect) for my tea time. So comforting to have my own china mug. We buy a few souvenirs, a few items of clothing. But not anywhere the volume of STUFF that I buy in a month here.

This past weekend seemed to be full of taking care of STUFF. Going through closets, purging, switching my wardrobe from summer to fall. Organizing closets now that my daughter has moved out. Making an inventory of what’s in the downstairs freezer. Pulling out the window air conditioners which requires moving around a lot of STUFF in the basement so we can store them.


Our STUFF at Solomon’s Estate in Surrey

One of my favorite scenes from Veggie Tales is when Madame Blueberry plans yet another trip to the StuffMart to get more STUFF. That sticks in my mind every time I do a Target run: more STUFF from the StuffMart. When I look in my closet at my fall wardrobe, I think of how many more clothes I have to choose from than I did when I opened my suitcase last fall.

Of course our needs are generously met by those who feed us and transport us. I don’t have to cook and clean STUFF. Sometimes I miss the daily routine but often, as I step back and get that distance on my own life, I wonder at the amount of time spent on STUFF.

At our couples’ Bible study we were discussing how many unexpected things happened to people in the Gospel of Luke as they encountered Jesus and traveled with him. Maybe the reason I don’t have more unexpected encounters with Jesus is that I’m too busy just maintaining STUFF.

More in a future blog about the wonderful re-orientation of priorities that travel can bring.

A Visit to Ali’s Cave

The other day I rummaged around in the drawer of my nightstand to find my glasses repair kit. Success! There it was with its neon yellow price sticker proclaiming it had cost me £1.99. Printed on the price sticker is also the name of the shop in which I bought the kit: Ali’s Cave. In Edinburgh.

I had been walking down the sidewalk near our lodgings (eight nights in Edinburgh in 2017!), took off my glasses to wipe them (no doubt because of mist or drizzle or rain), and found the right side piece (correctly called the “temple”) came off in my hands.

This is exactly what you DON’T want to have happen when you’ve been away from home for only a week and you have more than three months to go!

I made my way to Boots (a super-drugstore, “Boots runs” take the place of Target runs when I’m in the UK) to see if they sold such a thing as an eye glass repair kit. They  surprisingly did not. Boots hardly ever lets me down. But the helpful clerk suggested a store a couple of blocks away called Ali’s Cave. “They have EVERYTHING!”she added.

As soon as I entered Ali’s Cave, I knew she was right. The store reminded me so much of a store where I lived in New Jersey – Grand Variety. And it was. Ali’s Cave refers, I guess to the cave of treasure in “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” I also think the proprietor was named Ali. Ali was very helpful and showed me past aisles of pillows, duvets, birthday cards, helpful gadgets seen only on TV, tasteful gifts for your elderly aunt, tools, computer accessories, right to the teeny glasses repair kit!

Ali’s Cave truly held treasure for me! What would I have done without being able to repair my glasses so quickly and easily? Scotland doesn’t have eyeglass stores every few blocks like many commercial areas in the US. Also, this annoying feature of my brand new glasses has been an ongoing problem so I have become quite adept at turning the itsy bitsy screw that connects the temple to the eyepiece.


I am currently reading “Transit” by Rachel Cusk. This quote caught my attention: “…these trips away from home sometimes proved to be staging posts, even if she didn’t see it at the time. They gave her a distance on her own life: it became something she could see, instead of being immersed in it as she usually was…” As I look at my life with some distance that travel has given me, I realize how important a community is. I am more aware and more appreciative of all the people who make up my community – the checkers and baggers at the grocery, the workers at Target who do try to help me find something, the neighbor who has a helpful suggestion, the librarians at our public library. Every day people, sharing my neighborhood – all of us trying to help each other get through life.

Right now, someone in the Lauriston Gardens neighborhood of Edinburgh is entering Ali’s Cave, being helped, finding what he or she needs, smiling, heading out….All over the world, small acts of kindness and help.


Going Out Your Door

“‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door….You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’” 

[Frodo quoting Bilbo Baggins to Sam] Book 1, chapter 3, The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien 

Walking along Hadrian’s Wall

A year ago yesterday, on Sunday, August 20, 2017, we left for Edinburgh, our first stop on our 16 week tour of the United Kingdom, Ireland, and France. We went out the door, stepped into the Road, and were swept off to adventure after adventure.

My stated intent last year was to approach the trip as a pilgrimage. Reading my journal from the days just before leaving and a few days after we arrived, my concerns were very prosaic – terrible accommodations, aching feet, worries about terror attacks. I wonder if pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales complained about their accomodations….

Some goals of pilgrimage are renewal, wisdom, change of heart. I begin this blog again wanting to reflect on how I been changed because of the pilgrimage on which we embarked a year ago. How have I been renewed? What wisdom have I gained?

As I look around the room where I write, I am surrounded by tokens of our travels: tapestry pillows from Bayeux and the Fitzwilliam Museum, an icon from Taize, a reproduction roof boss from Winchester Cathedral (that dates from our first trip in 1991!), a bowl of Portmeirion china also dating from that 1991 trip, tea towels galore – the list goes on and on. More than souvenirs, these items remind me of world history, not just personal history. My world is enlarged as I think of wandering through vast cathedrals, sitting in silence in Taize worship, or interacting with shopkeepers in a distant land.

In 1991, we left our home with a baby in arms, two little boys, ages 6 and 8, and 23 students to travel on “England Term.” Honestly, I was dreading it. Now five trips later, I sit here plotting how to do more such travel, engage in more such pilgrimages.

There’s still more than a little of Bilbo Baggins in me when I think of adventures. I quote his words to Gandalf: “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!” I have been late for dinner overseas more often than I can count! But now days my heart is more with Eowyn in her reply to Aragon. He asks her what she fears. Here is her reply: “‘A cage,’ she said, ‘To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire’” (from Return of the King).

Come along with me on a journey of reflection as I remember each week this fall the adventures, and pilgrimages, of the past years. “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past.” (Burnt Norton from Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot).