Two Stories About Bells

Vertigo 02One thing you learn in writing stories is that certain objects have a mysterious and almost magnetic power that defies words. Castles, swords, rings, goblets, buried treasure—the appearance of any one of these in a story is like a radiant stone that vibrates with its own intensity. Perhaps that’s why I became Catholic, because as a storyteller I was naturally drawn to a religion that invests material things with sacramental power: holy water; crosses; bells, books, and candles.

 

Bell towers have fascinated me ever since I saw the movie Vertigo when I was nine or ten years old. Recently voted the greatest film of all time in the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll, Vertigo tells the story of a retired detective (James Stewart) hired to trail a young woman (Kim Novak) who may be possessed by the ghost of a long-dead ancestor. He pursues her to an old Spanish mission, the Mission San Juan Batista, where, at the very top of the bell tower, tragedy strikes. And then strikes again.

 

The understated use of Hispanic and southwestern folklore in this movie slowly worked its way into my brain, taking root in dark corners. During my first couple of months at Southwestern University, ten years ago this summer, I was enchanted by the beige limestone, the rounded-arch doorways, the old chapel at the heart of campus with a door leading up to the tower, a door that was only unlocked on the rarest of occasions. I remember being struck with a sense of the history of the place.

 

It was there that I had the idea to write a series of children’s books, books that would draw on the cultures and legends of the Celts (my ancestors) and the Southwest (my adopted home). This summer in going back and rereading some of the folklore and mythology of England I’ve been struck by how many stories center around the ringing of bells. In the days before telephones and wireless, sometimes the cathedral bell was the only means of communication between one town and another, or between the church and those in peril on the ocean’s dark waters.

 

One such story from County Surrey tells of a man, Neville Audley, who was captured fighting on the wrong side during the long-ago War of the Roses. Arrested and sentenced to die when the curfew bell tolled on the next night at Chertsey Abbey, he realized that the only hope of being spared was to obtain a pardon from the king.

 

Neville conferred with his girlfriend, Blanche Heriot, and their mutual friend Herrick. Herrick agreed to ride towards London to seek pardon. But on the next day, with only five minutes left before the bell tolled, Herrick was seen flying towards the town from half a mile away—still too far away to save Audley’s life.

 

The minutes passed. The townsfolk awaited the tolling of the bell. But the bell did not ring.

 

Just as Herrick arrived in town, the sexton, accompanied by soldiers, went up into the tower to investigate. There they found Blanche Heriot, dashed against the bell and frame but still clinging to the clapper with a tenacity born of desperation. Luckily she had hung there just long enough to save her beloved, who was spared from death by the king’s timely pardon. The two were married shortly afterwards.

 

Another story with a less happy ending is told of the tenor bell of Burgh le Marsh church. The people of Burgh le Marsh once made a living off the debris of doomed ships, lighting the beacon on Marsh Hill to lure poor sailors to their deaths. Once the sailors were all drowned and the weather had calmed, the townsfolk would scramble ashore to loot the broken vessels.

 

As the story goes, in 1629 the Mary Rose was sailing from Leith, Scotland along the Lincolnshire coast on its way to Flanders. A storm began to gather. The wind howled and the rains beat against the ship, while the people of Burgh watched from the shore with growing excitement.

 

But not everyone was pleased by the buffeting of the storm-tossed ship. The elderly sexton Guymer, when he learned what was being planned, begged them not to light the beacon. No one listened.

 

A crowd made its way towards Marsh Hill and the beacon was lit. Captain Frohock, seeing what he mistook for a lighthouse, called out to his men that they were safe. The crew turned the ship in the direction of the light.

 

Back on shore, desperate to avoid the collision that was imminent, Guymer ran towards the church. Ascending to the top of the bell tower, he grabbed the rope and rang the bell with all the strength he could muster. Captain Frohock, realizing how close he was to shore and certain death, ordered the Mary Rose back to sea, away from the treacherous sands.

 

Enraged by the tolling of the bell, the townspeople stormed into the church. Breaking down the belfry door, they found Guymer, still clinging to the rope, his dead body swaying to and fro. His heart had burst open from exhaustion.

 

When Captain Frohock returned to the village a year later and learned what had happened, he bought an acre of land known as “Bell String Acre.” He ordered that rent from the land be used to buy a silken rope for the bell. It’s said that he married the sexton’s daughter.

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The Shankill Butchers

Paddy Thompson's shop, Belfast

The Shankill Butchers ride tonight

You’d better shut your windows tight

They’re sharpening their cleavers and their knives

And taking all their whiskey by the pint

— The Decemberists, “The Shankill Butchers”

 

They were the worst gang of serial killers in British history. From 1975 to 1979 they terrorized Northern Ireland. Today the area they haunted, Shankill, has become synonymous with savagery.

The Shankill Butchers were a loyalist (Protestant) gang, many of whose members belonged to the Ulster Volunteer Force. Headed by Lenny Murphy, a former convict, the gang brutally murdered 23 people within a period of four years. Catholics were abducted on the streets and slowly tortured. Some were ferociously beaten. Others were shot or had their throats cut open.

The group’s deeds were so legendary that they soon passed into folklore. Catholics who grew up during the height of the “Troubles” (as the war came to be known) recall how their mothers would warn them not to go out at night, or the Butchers would get them. Yet as sadistic as their methods were, it’s worth asking whether this gang was really the most extreme form of evil in a conflict that ultimately claimed nearly 4,000 lives.
Continue reading

The Bethany Deaton Case: A Blogging and News Roundup

leadThis week I’m very excited to announce that one of my articles is being featured in The Atlantic online.

 

“Seven Signs You’re in a Cult” gives an overview of my time in Tyler Deaton’s prayer group, beginning in 2005 when I met him and Bethany Leidlein and concluding with Bethany’s death in Kansas City in 2012. It was an extremely difficult piece to write, because reliving the emotions associated with that period in my life, and losing her especially, is never easy. There were times when I thought it would never be finished, but I’m pleased with the response it’s been getting. Continue reading

We Have to Stop Telling Others That They Don’t Matter

schindlers-listI have a friend who recently came out as bisexual. According to her, there’s nothing particularly unusual or sensuous about it: she just feels safe and warm in the presence of other women.

But when I shared her story with an acquaintance, he dismissed it out of hand. “I see no evidence of genuine love here,” he said. “Just selfishness and lust.”

 It really *hurt* me that he could say such things about another person. To him it didn’t matter what she had gone through. Her story, her experience was irrelevant. He had never felt those emotions, but they were obviously wrong. He didn’t have to listen. He just knew.

A few days later I read the story of a young Jewish woman who converted to Christianity. She’s been routinely dismissed by other Christians because she’s “not like them.” She doesn’t lift her hands when she prays, she doesn’t pray out loud, so she must not be a *real* Christian. It doesn’t matter that these American cultural expressions are alien to her Jewish heritage. Why does she even need a Jewish heritage now that she’s following Christ?

“Everything I learned as a Jew,” she says: “keep prayer to yourself, don’t evangelize because it’s disrespectful, all humans are basically ‘good at heart’ like Anne Frank said in her diary—was not only irrelevant, but *wrong*.”

 I see this happening over and over, and it breaks my heart. Over the weekend when several women were murdered by a deranged man in retaliation for refusing his sexual advances, women on Twitter shared their stories of being harassed, threatened, raped, and then told it was all their fault. The outpouring of grief and anger at a system in which half the population is not safe was, for many, cathartic and healing.

 Yet one very popular blogger dismissed the outcry as a bunch of “liberal feminists” exploiting a tragedy to further their own agenda. The agenda of not wanting to be murdered.

 We have to quit doing this. In a lot of places it seems the only people who matter are white, male Evangelicals. If you’re a woman, gay, Jew, Catholic, artist, writer, Democrat, if you deviate from the “norm” in any way, it’s a safe bet that someone has used the Bible to tell you that you shouldn’t exist, that you’re going to hell. And then when you insist that this is who you are, that you’re a child of God, you’re ignored as though you’d never spoken.

Dismissiveness is dangerous. If we’re able to ignore people when they’re crying out for us to recognize them as people, we would ignore them in situations where their lives are genuinely threatened. We have to start seeing them, caring about them, understanding their stories and being broken over their heartaches. They’re people. They matter. Sometimes the best thing you can do for another person is just to listen and treat them with seriousness and respect.

           

Tonight, All the Children Are Crying: A Lament for Nigeria

malala-yousafzaiThree hundred girls.

 

The hope of their nation. The brightest young women Nigeria had to offer. They were going to be teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians. They had dreams of leading their country out of the darkness.

 

But that’s not how it’s turned out. They were carried away. Awoken in the middle of the night to the noise of gunfire, forced out of their beds by sweaty, dangerous-looking militiamen, with AK-47s primed at their backs they disappeared into the night and haven’t been seen since. The darkness swallowed them up.

 

It swallowed up the hope of Nigeria.

 

The hope that a woman could get a real education and grow up to be something other than the twelve-dollar bride of a tribal warlord.

 

The hope that a country racked by violence and religious militancy could look towards the future and begin to heal itself.

 

Those dreams were taken away, into the jungle where three hundred brilliant, talented women were tallied up and sold like the cheapest of human commodities.

 

This need not have happened. It shouldn’t have happened.

 

And as I join with people of faith throughout the world tonight in praying for their return, I wonder why I live in a world where these things do happen, why they seem to happen so often. Why men with Bibles and Korans and machine guns are trying to destroy everything good and beautiful in this world. Why they throw acid in the faces of little girls who have the courage to attend school and determine the course of their own lives. Why they shoot strong women, brave women, in the back of the head, for the crime of being strong and brave.

 

I keep thinking of the lines to an old song we used to hear on Christian radio growing up. Tonight the lyrics resurfaced, more poignant and powerful than ever:

 

            Little child

            Dry your crying eyes

            How can I explain the fear you feel inside?

            For you were born

            Into this evil world

            Where man is killing man

            And no one knows just why

 

            What have we become?

            Just look what we have done

            All that we’ve destroyed

            You must build again

 

Yes, some humans have made this world a truly terrible and hellish place to live in. We have to do better. We have to create a better world for our children, a world not characterized by the deafening roar of bombs and ceaseless cacophony of bullets but by the quiet hum of students thinking, reading, writing poetry, creating model UNs—free to dream and discuss and flirt and fight and fall in love in peace and safety.

 

A world where the “threat” of peace doesn’t scare us.

 

A world without drones or guns, where the state no longer wields the grisly instruments of torture and death.

 

A world where women are not seduced and exploited by twisted religious perverts—in America or anywhere else.

 

Where they can study astronomy and biology and literature and math and politics without fear of reprisals from men bearing scriptures and machetes.

 

Where they can be anything they want to be, live any dream they want to dream, and no one can ever again take those dreams away from them.

 

So many have been hurt; so many have died. Tonight I pray against hope for the return of these young women, even as I mourn the possible loss of all they might have become. But I realize that in a much larger sense this is just another tragedy in a world full of them. It seems like every time the world has a chance to go right, someone comes along to wreak harm and destruction. And no one knows why they do it. Maybe it’s the twisted feeling of control and power it brings them, or maybe they really do just want to watch the world burn.

 

There are times like tonight when I feel scared and overwhelmed, just one feeble voice in the darkness. But this experience has galvanized so many, and I know I’m not the only one who thinks this world could be so beautiful. There is much to rebuild. But as hopeless as it seems, I haven’t given up yet. I hope you won’t, either.

 

Thomas

PLWD09 The_Incredulity_of_St_Thomas_Caravaggio“Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’”

 

The one who doubted:

that was what they called me.

No one remembered

the bravery I had shown

on the way to Bethany—

bravery or was it despair I felt

remembering the failed revolutions

the cousins murdered

Miriam straining to deliver

and dying or ere they were born,

our two sons.

 

The eddies of dust

over which our fathers walked

in ages past are trampled under

by the eagle’s talons

luxury sits grinning and contented

in the temple

making a mockery of Abraham

and Abraham’s God

The flower of youth perishes

on the hilltops of Judea

and hope is a luxury

for fools and charlatans.

 

Yet there was one who was not hopeless

Quiet and resolved

Upon his dark brow lingered a celestial light.

Though we had been abandoned by all

He had not abandoned us

And I was resolved not to forsake him

Even with the expectation of death encroaching

Death sadistic and perverse.

 

So call me not doubting

for it wasn’t my faith that forsook me

on that night in the garden

when they led him away

when they bound him to a fiery wheel

when the hounds of hell stood baying

round the tree where he hung suspended

where the crude lance entered

and his mother lay pierced at the root

 

no, it wasn’t my faith.

it was hope.

 

hope was enshrouded

and lain in a tomb

and a stone was laid over its mouth

and into the whale’s jaws

poured the blackness of darkness

and the mountains of the sea were silent.

And the serpent of death

glutted and imposing

stretched its victorious coils

round the sleeping world.

 

*           *           *

 

When they talk about me

ages hence

this is all they will remember:

the scorn on my face

when I heard they had raised him

when they said he had been sighted

walking towards Emmaus

breaking bread and disappearing

amid quiet laughter.

 

Buoyed with renewed expectation

they floated together

and I stood alone on the seashore

and the stars of twilight twinkled

as the shadows gathered round me.

 

And whenever the story is told

they’ll laugh at me for not believing

though if you had been there with us

you’d have had your questions

and they all gathered round him

and I lingered at the edges

feeling faint with confusion and sadness

as the smell of frankincense and spikenard

filled the warm spring air.

 

And when the commotion settled

and the twelve spread apart

there he was

and he motioned me forward

and it wasn’t a ghost nor a trance

he was just as alive as he had been

three days before

and I had no idea how to account for that

because I had known all along he was going to die

and the best I could have hoped for was to die alongside him.

 

But when I saw the wrists

where the wounds of betrayal burned dully

when I dipped my hand in the well

where the waters of life had poured out

when I brushed the skin of my arms

against the hair on the back of his neck

the embers of injustice blew away into nothing

and bitterness exhausted itself and was silent.

 

Years from now

when my desire is finally granted

when my blood seeps over the barbaric stones

of some desolate isle

and my body grows cold and rigid

pierced by the four lances

I’ll stretch my stiffening sinews

Breathe a final prayer

And when death comes gliding over the seas to meet me

like a ghostly mirage of one I loved long ago

I’ll follow it fearless and undaunted

through the primordial depths

where the monsters of chaos will battle

until one comes to free them

and the dust of the tomb is plundered

and the relics are gathered from the shrines

and the bones are called out of the blackness.

And I’ll gaze on myself

and on them

as we gazed on him that night

credulous but believing

not understanding but no longer doubting

and we’ll walk together, tranquil and quiet,

on the shore of the sun-rimmed sea.

_________________________________

Easter-2014-blog-synchroblog_550x332

Song Friday: “Alaska” (The Silver Seas)

Silver-Seas_Alaska_coverI ran across these guys after one of their songs was used as the final song of the first season of Breaking Bad. I was inspired to listen to their whole discography, and I have to say, of all the songs I’ve heard this year, this one is probably my favorite. It’s gorgeous, sad, nostalgic, hopeful, and swooningly romantic.

And I have no idea what it’s about. Maybe someone can enlighten me.