In defence of the Angelus

If pushed on my position, I would broadly describe myself as a secularist – in that I think there should be a complete separation of religion and state. However I often feel a bit aloof towards the general ‘secular’ movement – because whilst I believe in its goals it contains within it the smaller more militant “New Atheist” tendency which believes in a complete eradication of religion from our lives.

Religion, like any ideology or thought-system, can and has been used for great evil. It can also, similarly, be used for great good. The more militant strains of the atheist movement however see it as a virus, a mental disease that does only harm and we should root it out of society. Like any ideology, I think religion should be used to guide your thoughts, but not dictate them. You should always question any such dogma, let it inform you, but use your own critical faculties to ultimately decide. (The Buddha famously urged his followers not to believe anything just because it came from a scripture or holy man). Furthermore, the problem may well be “Organised” religion specifically – I think there is a tendency for any hierarchal institution – be it religion, corporation, government etc. to become corrupt, and drunk with power and for great evils to be practised within. Religion, or spirituality, is no different – but we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The battle lines over secularism are quite evident and alive in Ireland. As a country dominated by Roman Catholicism it has been scared by such institutional abuse. In comparison to many of its European neighbours, the boundary between church and state seems much more blurred and the recent tragic death of Savita Halappanavar and the resulting debate over the role of religion in influencing decisions on her health (and the wider debate thus of the role of religion in dictating public health policy) has reignited the discussion.

As all aspects of the relationship between church and state are being examined, the curious case of the ‘Angelus’ arises. The Angelus is a Christian devotion in which a prayer is recited, accompanied by the ringing of a bell (as a call to prayer). In Ireland, the State broadcaster RTÉ broadcasts the bells on radio at noon and 6pm, and on television at 6pm. This practise is being questioned – should the public-funded broadcaster be favouring one religion and its rites over others (or at all). In a secular state this would not happen.

I am, thus, sympathetic to the secularist viewpoint on this. But herein lies the rub – I quite like the Angelus.

I am no longer a practising Christian, but I am not anti-Christianity or anti-religion. I like the core message of Jesus’ teachings (albeit with a liberal degree of picking and choosing to get to the core of his message and through additions and mis-translations etc.), and enjoy many of the rites and rituals associated with it (when practised in the proper spirit and not as some form of automated drudgery). I decided in my early 20s that Christianity just wasn’t for me, but I don’t want to see it destroyed. My current opinion on Christianity is somewhat influenced by Alan Watts interpretation of it as seen through the lens of Eastern thought, and thus I find in it much to admire. However, the problem remains that the Angelus itself is an overtly Christian rite being propagated by the State. Yet the act of the Angelus itself as is now experienced – the playing of bells over the air – is something I enjoy.

I am a believer in the beneficial effects of what is being increasingly referred to as mindfulness (more on that here). Originally a Buddhist idea it has become a secular practice also. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has been part of this movement and in his book ‘Peace is Every Step’ he offers a number of different ways to practice Mindfulness, including the use of bells.

In my tradition, we use the temple bells to remind us to come back to the present moment. Every time we hear the bell, we stop talking, stop our thinking, and return to ourselves, breathing in and out, and smiling. Whatever we are doing, we pause for a moment and just enjoy our breathing.

When I read this, I immediately thought of the Angelus. When it is broadcast on television it is accompanied by images of people going about various everyday tasks and then pausing when the Angelus plays. All that is heard is the bells – there is no incantation of the prayer, just people stopping and peering into the middle distance, as if reflecting in some manner.

Hanh continues:

Since I have come to the West, I have not heard many Buddhist temple bells. But fortunately, there are church bells all over Europe. There do not seem to be as many in the United States; I think that this is a pity. Whenever I give a lecture in Switzerland, I always make use of the church bells to practice mindfulness. When the bell rings, I stop talking, and all of us listen to the full sound of the bell. We enjoy it so much. (I think that it is better than the lecture!) When we hear the bell, we can pause and enjoy our breathing and get in touch with the wonders of life that are around us – the flowers, the children, the beautiful sounds.

He then goes on to suggest that the University in Berkeley should introduce a ringing of a bell to invite such a pause, and the use of bells at home.

The Angelus can be reshaped as an opportunity to practice some mindfulness. The simple sounds of the bells can be enjoyed and used to initiate a short period of contemplation. This can be entirely secular and non-religious, or can be used in most spiritual practice (Christianity itself has a rich history of meditation and contemplative prayer).

Obviously there are still issues – calling it the ‘Angelus’ and having it produced under the banner of ‘RTÉ Religious’ still troubles the secular ideals – but these (if needed) could be amended – but more importantly I think the act itself – the ringing of bells and the pause for mindfulness is something that can be enjoyed by all if we get past the stigma of ‘religion’. In the hectic pace of the modern world I think we should be reminded from time to time to pause for a moment and settle our thoughts. The Angelus allows us to do that.