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.

5 Responses to The Bell & the Blackbird
  1. Sam Schreiner
    September 13, 2018 | 5:52 pm

    Hi David,
    I rather see the Blackbird like the Sirens – calling out in a tempting way to explore only to be dashed upon the rocks. The bell anchors me to the harbor, the chapel, the dinner bell – the places where I’m truly safe and cared for. Or maybe I was just predestined that way….Keep writing, I love it.

    • David Anderson
      September 14, 2018 | 9:27 am

      Thanks, Sam–like a sermon, you can never say everything in one post. What I could have noted was–following the blackbird isn’t a one-time leave-it-all-behind move (at least not for most of us). The beauty of that call comes in small ways every day, and also in big ways at important moments in our lives. We move in and out of those two calls–what I was focused on was the importance of staying grounded in that bell space long enough to be able to move out successfully (to avoid, in your terms, following a siren call). But both calls are of God. Think of it this way–you live in one home, in one neighborhood for 30 years, you know all your neighbors and every shop keeper on the block–and then one day you realize you are called to move to another place, to open a new chapter of your life. That is a blackbird call, a divine summons. Not a siren.

  2. Don Livingston
    September 17, 2018 | 3:10 pm

    My thought was that the blackbird could represent taking the “time to smell the roses.” To enjoy all the beauty around us, in its many forms, provided by God for us to enjoy and enrich our lives.

  3. Johnna L Fredrickson
    September 18, 2018 | 10:14 am

    For me, it all depends on which call takes us into the embrace of God. Either can be an excuse to back away from the encounter that plants us more firmly beyond the wall or in the pew. Do we follow to remain our small selves or to hear in the call God’s invitation to experience the entire creation as holy ground?

  4. David Anderson
    September 19, 2018 | 9:06 am

    I wish I had said that.
    Thank you.

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