Each day a Presence on the threshold announces “Ave” and, “You, yes, you ! are blessed.”
Each day the angels hold their breath waiting to hear whether I might say, “Let it be done according to your Word."
The Gospel Text
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." -Luke 1:26-37
The Angelus Bell
In every culture bells ring for warning, to announce the time, to signal a gathering or an alarm, to relay messages by series of coded rhythms and agreed upon sequences. Steeple bells call the village to church, a town meeting, to fight a fire, or to observe a curfew. Bells toll for the dead, and peal for weddings and births. Bells call people to attention in meditation rooms, at meetings, in shops, and in schoolyards. Bells attached to buoys warn boats of rocks and reefs beneath the surface of the ocean. Private phones ring and we answer readily enough at any time of day or night.
The Angelus bell is meant to thoroughly awaken the soul to YES.
The Angelus is the prayer of “yes.” Yes, with Mary, to enflesh the Christ. Yes, to bearing the Prince of Peace. Yes to carrying compassion to its completion in the struggles of people in this difficult, sad, beautiful world.
In many places the Angelus bells ring at 6 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m., or in religious communities, at the beginning of the Eucharist and Vespers. The words, which correspond with the bells, in the sequence 3/3/9 (indicated by the asterisks) are these:
*The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary *And she conceived by the Holy Spirit
*Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.
*Behold the handmaid of the Lord. *Be it done unto me according to Thy word.
*And the Word was made flesh. *And dwelt among us.
*Pray for us, O holy Mother of God. *That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
*Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, *your grace into our hearts, *that we to whom the incarnation of Christ Thy son *was made known by the message of an angel, *may by his passion and cross *be brought to the glory of his resurrection, *through the same Christ our Lord. Amen
The Angelus evolved to its present form by 1270 from Franciscan devotions. The prayer “remembers” the Incarnation - the Word made flesh - and Mary's 'yes' to her unique participation in that mystery. But of course it is also a call to the person praying to take the part of Mary - to enter the mystery, to participate, to say 'yes' in that moment and to all the consequences of that assent. Yes, I agree to let Christ be conceived in me and born from me.
The Angelus bell rings and the response is 'yes' (we hope). The church encourages this practice several times a day, because, of course, distractions and the challenges of life in general break the agreement almost immediately. And so, the bell rings and you may say 'yes' throughout the day, in changing light, through the moods of the hours, in passing weather, in variable circumstances through the seasons of the year and the struggles, problems, and difficulties presented within the relentless press of time. The bell rings, Eternity breaks through with an angelic salutation addressed specifically to you, and asks, 'Will you?' And you wake up, surprised, 'Oh, it's YOU! I'd already forgotten...again...'
Too Many Words
For me, too many words clutter the Angelus prayer in too little time. This is not the fault of any particular bell ringer. I simply find that saying all the words inhibits the richness of the prayer and truncates the response demanded of me. Ultimately, a simply 'yes' is enough. But it took me a long time through a valuable sequence of stages to free myself to pray that simple 'yes'.
I began saying the whole prayer in my mind. After a while I learned to leave out the Hail Mary, or say it only once instead of the three times the full prayer requires. The versicles are so rich, I found that I began choosing only one at a time. Word and images from the Angelusrise up for me during the day: Behold your handmaid. Now, and at the hour of our death. One line or one versicle carries enough power for a day or for a lifetime's meditation. And the Word was made flesh. Sometimes my circumstance is, be it done unto me according to Thy word. And sometimes, and dwelt amongus takes my breath away and there's room for nothing else.
I also draw from the last part of the prayer. Sometimes pour into our hearts, or, pour into my heart, or just pour is enough. Pour Grace. Pour Love. Until my cup runneth over! Make me worthy of the promises of Christ.
Entering the Prayer Visually
At first, I am merely the viewer. I watch as Gabriel tentatively enters the porch where Mary sits. Two worlds separate them - the wild lush garden evoking Paradise of which the angel is a part, and the stark domestic interior of Mary's dwelling. Only a small window suggests the garden outside Mary's house, from which she is protected by glass and iron. But the angel brings danger and chaos with him, the tip of his wing still in paradise as he bends his knee in the liminal place between Eternity and humble dwelling place of the young girl. Both figures bow slightly, acknowledging one another. Her heavy, dark mantle begins to fall off her shoulders. Will she say 'yes'?
For many years I watched, detached, an outsider to this scene. But other renderings pull the viewer inside. One of these is an earlier Fra Angelico Annunciation (cell #3, from 1440-42). The angel stands upright inside Mary's space, with no separation between their two spheres of habitation. One Romanesque arch frames them, making one prayer. But that one prayer requires depth and focus because several arches pull the viewer deeper into the picture. I'm not outside, but drawn in.
The angel apparently interrupts Mary at her reading and praying, and she's backed up against the wall, a bit claustrophobically, her shadow large, cast by the light of the Angelic presence. I'm not as terrified as Mary, but I'm uncomfortable enough.
Neither am I alone with Mary and the Angel. Anachronistically, his head still freshly dripping blood, Peter Martyr joins us reverently. [I love scenes crossing time, where later saints (or patrons and donors) appear in Biblical scenes as if they were present- which of course they are through prayer, inviting us to join them.]
I imagine the scene now from Peter Martyr's point of view from behind and to the left of the angel. What is outside the porch? My big head peering in as if through the windows of a doll's house? Anyone at any time looking or meditating on that fresco? Tourists in baseball caps and shorts, socks and sandals and cameras draped round their necks at the museum? The monk who's cell it was, or the series of monks whose cell it was, who lived with the painting day and night?
I look away, ignoring the gaping unknown from which I once watched, for now, you see, I'm on the porch with Mary and Gabriel, like a patron or donor or saint or Peter Martyr. For a time, I watch intimately. I walk around the scene. Carefully, not to disturb the air or mood, for Mary's choice at any of these moments is to refuse. And then, what?
Suddenly though, one day, in the long series of days I stood near the porch like Peter Martyr, I remember the point of the Angelus. We are in the place of Mary. The prayer is a reminder of Eternity breaking through at every moment, asking us, Will you? Will you wake up? Will you bear the Christ in your own soul? Will you bear compassion for the world? Will you embrace the self-sacrifice and suffering necessary to bring love into loveless places? Will you say yes to this moment and the moments ahead of you, when you leave chapel and go about your work?
The Angel Gabriel looks directly at me.
He hovers, larger than life, not in the painting, not in the chapel, but in my work-room. Heedless of the dimensions of my study, his huge Quatrocento Florentine wings expand and contract without rustle or disturbance right through the walls, my bookcase, books and papers, the couch, the lace curtains, the windows. Waiting for my answer.