The bell seemed to be telling where I belonged – as if it were calling me home.
What do you do when you are tired? Or confused? Overwhelmed or simply dissatisfied, disillusioned or burned out? There is a tiredness which a few early nights will remedy, and at times like this we become very grateful for the blessing of sleep. But there is another kind of tiredness or confusion, a deep down exhaustion, a feeling of emptiness, of having given all that we have to give. It’s the story of the empty jug. Often this kind of fatigue manifests as the feeling that we are ‘at the end of our tether’, as confusion, and lack of direction and motivation. Symptoms also include moodiness, feeling ‘down’, restlessness and often the inability to concentrate. Exhaustion like this also leads to the inability to sleep. These are the classic signs of burnout. What might we do when we feel like this? And what might this be telling us about our spiritual life? And about our home?
Bernard of Clairvaux tells us that “in the spiritual life each one must drink from his or her own well”. But if that well runs dry we certainly see and feel the effects! A significant part of growing in wisdom in our spiritual journey is learning to listen to ourselves. We need to be attentive to the signs of a rapidly emptying well and do something about it. Above all it is a call to remember where home is. Thomas Merton, the great spiritual writer and contemplative monk of the last century, writes beautifully of such an experience, and of being called back by the monastery bell:
“‘Please help me. What am I going to do? I can’t go on like this. You can see that! Look at the state I am in. What ought I to do? Show me the way’. As if I needed more information or some kind of sign! Suddenly, as soon as I had made that prayer, I became aware of the wood, the trees, the dark hills, the wet night in my imagination, I started to hear the great bell of Gethsemani ringing in the night. The bell seemed to be telling where I belonged – as if it were calling me home” (Thomas Merton, A Merton Reader).
It is all too easy to wander away. Our sense of joy in each day can disappear under excessive work or worry or routine – and we need to be brought back again. Relationships can become dulled and the beauty of them can so easily be replaced with a familiarity that takes the other for granted. And our sense of God and delight in God can lose its edge if we are not mindful of it. The bell of Gethsemani abbey where Merton lived calls the monks to prayer seven times a day and is a ‘voice’ which speaks of what really matters, what they need to be reminded of as they go about their daily work in the monastery. Like the woods and trees, the hills and the rain, the bell of Gethsemani was for Merton a stable presence, the voice of God speaking to him in his confusion and turmoil, calling him back into awareness of the One who is always with us.
Ms Kerry McCullough
Spirituality and Liturgy Coordinator