I unlock the out-of-the-way door and pick my way past pots of greenery wintering in sunlight from the narrow windows. In the courtyard, the statue of the angel Gabriel silently stands watch as I climb to the small arched door. The key barely catches the latch. I step into a cold room, eight feet long by three feet wide. In its center, a ladder rises through a hatch and the dark level above, twenty feet or more: the Bell Tower. The room is cold today: no heat from the ancient steam radiator, whose handle crumbles to the touch. I open it a fraction, enough for steam to hiss into the pipes.
I have come to ring home Sister Mary Rochefort, called back to God just a few days before. Below in Chapel, the Sisters gather to receive her mortal remains into her monastic community. An oil lamp, symbol of Christ’s light in her heart, tended carefully and shared, will be lit from the Paschal candle. Our Prioress will place it by her coffin with the Holy Rule and a single rose.
In the tower, all is quiet. I tug to test the rope. The bell Benedict does not swing on its wheel for a toll; a mechanism moves the tongue. The rope grudgingly moves an inch. Good: nothing is frozen solid. I adjust the cloth covering the scratchy knot and check my watch. The bell should begin to ring its welcome five minutes before our Sister arrives. I pull the rope firmly. A solid tone rings out: the first ring, for the year of her birth.
We toll the bell once for each year of a Sister’s life. Today, I will ring 75 tolls. Too few: so often it is 90 or more. “Glory be to the Father,” I pray, offering the first doxology for the blessing that God worked in and through Sister Mary’s life. Prayed after each toll, it sets the pace.
Counting and praying, I walk the path of Sister Mary’s life. At eighteen, entering the monastery with many others, four of them downstairs now, others already in Gethsemane on the hill. Then profession, teaching, study, the ups-and-downs of community life. I have rung many tolls – sixty! – before the one when she became my novice director. How many ministries in a single life!
These last 15 tolls include shared memories. Jubilees and professions, meetings and celebrations, always with the rhythm of our common prayer. The toll for the year of diagnosis, then the Italian trip to see our Benedictine roots. The toll of the recurrence. Then, too soon, the 75th toll.
Its reverberations slip imperceptibly into silence. I pray one last doxology and my personal farewell to Sister Mary, adjust the rope, coax the radiator off, and lock the door. The shoulder of the angel’s wing peeks through the courtyard window, ready to carry our Sister home when we have finished our earthly goodbyes. I join my Sisters in the Chapel.