The Bell & the Blackbird


There’s an old Irish legend of “The Bell and the Blackbird” that I found in a poem by David Whyte. It’s the image of a monk standing out on the edges of the monastery grounds, hearing the chapel bell calling him to prayer and thinking, “That is the most beautiful sound in the world.” In that same moment, out beyond the precincts of the monastery, the monk hears the song of a blackbird, and thinks, “That is also the most beautiful sound in the world.” The legend leaves the solitary man standing there; we don’t know which song he follows.

For a moment, when I heard that story, I held my breath. We have all heard the bell behind us and the blackbird somewhere beyond the gate. Which do we heed? The answer of course is both, which is why it pangs the heart. If it were one or the other life would be so easy.

The bell sounds, calling you to a set task at a given hour in a certain place. Calling you into the circle of this particular community, sitting in this same chair. Drawing you into the rhythm of ritual, toward the blazes of tradition, family. The bell sings, but the song is of duty, accountability, perseverance. Wallace Stevens called it a “blessed rage for order.”

Then the blackbird sings, calling you to step over the boundary and follow a voice that sounds only for you. The “other” calls, winged resident of another kingdom. Beauty cries with such force that you cannot remain. Everything you learned in here you must take out there. To refuse out of fear would be to reject your foreordination.

A life of meaning and deep purpose must somehow follow both the bell and the blackbird. Those who answer only the bell, beautiful though its peal, become gradually hardened and resentful. They see others slipping out beyond the gate but they stay, thinking, I, however, will be good and faithful. They imagine it is possible to be saved by keeping the rules until you die. Often, when they wish they might finally step out, the notes have gone silent.

Those who answer only the blackbird often find immediate happiness, until the song fades like a will-o’-the wisp and they are suddenly disoriented, lost, too weak to press on. They did not stay home in the circle long enough to learn that the blackbird sings only when you least expect it, and never on command.

You don’t want to live your whole life without ever following that one beautiful summons directed only to you. But neither can you chase after every bird who flutters by. And no one can tell you which—and when. Maybe all we can say is, best to let the bell call you back to prayer, back to the circle of elders, back to the sacred stories of those who knew how to listen for just the right call. Best, that is, to be faithful. Then, when your time comes and you must follow the blackbird, you will take with you the wisdom of the bell.

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