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The Bells of St Mary’s and the Problem with Goodness

by Robinmarie McClement

     Today I woke up with serious intent of taking the morning off.   I began my day with prayers, praying mostly for help to stay selfishly faithful to taking the morning for myself and not pushing my exhausted soul to grind on the overwhelming list of timelines, deadlines and things to complete.  This morning I needed to just be and to let things lay, to not to do much of anything.  As luck or coincidence or Holy Spirit would have it, when I settled down with my first cup of coffee and Good Morning America, I decided to do a little channel surfing (my husband would be so proud) and happened upon a winner. 

     The Bells of St. Mary’s with Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman (1945) had just started.  A favorite, it is easy for me to become immersed in the story.  Dismissing the irony that I searched high and low during the holidays without finding it, I celebrated my good fortune that in early February it was there on the morning I need to rest!

     For me, it is a beautiful tale of really growing up and growing into God. It also has Bing crooning a few tunes, which makes it priceless.  When I consider all the movies that are my favorites in which to find comfort and inspiration, this one is toward the top.  Sister Benedict (Bergman) serves God to the point that she is exhausted and becomes so ill she has to be sent away.  It seems she will never know why she is being asked to leave and must just go, leaving behind her heart and soul and what feels like a job unfinished. After all the time, energy and ‘Spirit-led” effort, she has to go with little notice or explanation. She must trust God, and because she trusts, she must go.  To say this is difficult for her is an understatement, one many of us can relate to.

     With my handkerchief in hand, I watched and wept for her, myself and so many others as I reflected on the many places we had served and the many places departed. Having to go, to let go, when the mission seems incomplete, or even mission impossible, is hard, no matter the reason, and can be painful.  We want so much to see our Spirit-led efforts come to fruition; it is the human side of God.

     So many of us who work or serve as clergy or staff, who volunteer and work in our congregations and communities, know Sister Benedict’s story, whether or not we have seen the film.  We know it because we are living it.  Spending our whole lives doing good things for other people is what we do; it defines for many of us just who we are.  It is a part of our own growing up and growing into God.  It can be exhausting, joyfully exhausting.  But, at times it can be joyless – just going through the motions of what must be done.  We need to remind ourselves to rest, to care for ourselves and our own spirit – or be wiped out by our own goodness.

     As a Spiritual Director I see many clients who are seeking a deeper and more attentive relationship with God. This often begins with much needed spiritual rest and Sabbath.  In her newest book, God Speaks in Many Tongues (a Lenten book of 40 Sacred texts with different world wisdom traditions and commentary), Sister Joan Chittister has this to say about a Meditation (18) from Rumi: 

“The problem with goodness
is that it can become so dull,
so functional, so scripted, so smothering
that we lose touch entirely
with all the other ways
God has of showing us
what life is really all about.

Play a little. Laugh more. Try new things.
Walk through strange places.

God is waiting for you to find divinity
where you have never thought it could be.

God is waiting for you
to become spiritual
as well as simply good.”

     Giving ourselves permission to rest takes courage, some real commitment and either “non”-action or action that provides time for some Sabbath and renewal.   It can be a simple shift in your routine.  You don’t even have to take a whole day, but I hope you do.  In fact, I hope you take two.  When we carve out this time for ourselves we allow ourselves time to breathe Spirit.  Sister Joan reminds us that God is truly out and about in everything and waiting for us.

     As Lent approaches and offers us a time of clearing and emptying, it also offers us a time to be filled, to become more spiritual.  It issues an invitation to not only seek and find God but to delight with God in creation, in playing and in laughter. While threatening for Jesus and the Disciples, the road to the cross was also filled with much joy and celebration as they learned more of this opening up to God, moving beyond the Deuteronomist laws and into the life of the community and the areas of social injustices that became a movement.  They were Spirit filled and certainly Spirit led. They took time to delight and rest in God. We could learn a lot from them and the many ways Jesus showed them, by example, of how to deepen their relationship with God.

     Toward the very end of The Bells of St. Mary’s, Sister Benedict is praying in the Chapel for the final time before she is to leave and she tearfully utters, “Dear God, Help me to see your Holy will in all things, please help me to remove all bitterness from my soul.” As she gets up and exits, Father Timothy (Crosby) calls out to her in the final scene and begins to tell her the reason for her rushed departure. Her trust is validated and she is able to leave without the priest needing to finish his explanation.  Beautiful…just what I needed for my Sabbath rest, and I found myself repeating this simple prayer throughout the rest of the day.  I wish I were better at doing so every day.

     The Bells of St. Mary’s reminds me of what God’s still speaking bell quietly rings inside of me:  “…with your inspiration we never will fail, your chimes will forever bring sweet memories of you, so proudly ring out while we sing out, Hail, Hail, Hail. “   Today, I found God waiting for me in a movie.  It was a little strange but for me profound.   Sister Joan was right:  God is in everything, waiting for us.


One Response to “The Bells of St Mary’s and the Problem with Goodness”
  1. Rev. Patricia Schneider, DOC says:

    his was a much needed, refreshing article for those of us who sometimes forget to take the time we need. I have several clergy women friends and I sent it to each of them because they could also benefit from reading this. Thank you for reminding me that sometimes God can speak through the most unexpected sources.

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