BE STILL and Know
Sited in the Lady Chapel at St Ann’s Church at the heart of the city centre is Manchester’s first digital altarpiece. Created by Welsh artist Adam Buick, Veneration Bell is a sixteen minute video projection of hand thrown ceramic church bells suspended in sea caves around the coast of Pembrokeshire chiming at different states of tide as the sea crashes against the cave walls. Bells are a universal symbol of the sacred and Buick’s placing of them acts as a homage to nature, drawing attention to the beauty of the surrounding landscape.
A practice of the medieval church, still played to this day in some places, is the Angelus, the daily ringing of a church bell at 6am, midday and 6pm calling participants to stillness and meditation. The ringing consists of three strokes of the bell each followed by a pause and then nine consecutive strokes creating opportunity to pause briefly and be still for a few moments each day, to pray, reflect, or just breathe deeply amidst a day of constant activity and noise. St Ann’s Church will ring the Angelus daily throughout Lent, creating pauses that punctuate the day in a busy, moving city.
As I watch and listen to the repeating pattern of the gentle lapping of waves against the grey rocky walls of the sea caves I become aware of the rhythm of my own breathing, my own heart beat. The solitary bell venerating the landscape as it quietly chimes imitates a sacred chapel or temple calling me to prayer. This grey, blue solitary scene places me in a hidden space. Away from the activity of the city outside I am drawn to be present to the experience of being alone in nature, of being still amidst the elements of earth, wind and water, to see both their immense power and their gentleness, and to recognise my humble place in this great and beautiful world. I become aware of the immensity of the great ocean and the horizon that opens up before me and I am reminded of how small my life is in relation to the whole of creation and eternity that lies beyond my everyday existence in this small sea cave.
During the season of Lent we are invited to live simply and prayerfully for 40 days, to put aside distractions and excesses and instead to become present to the moment. Like Elijah who took time to be alone and having fasted for 40 days took refuge in a cave sought to hear the voice of God. This Bible story tells us that as he looked and waited, the presence of God was not to be found in the great winds or in the mighty earthquake, nor even in the roaring fire, but in a still small voice.
Placing this meditative art installation over the altar of the Lady Chapel in St Ann’s Church highlights our deep longing to find stillness and sacred space in a city that is always moving. For many hundreds of years the church has used the bell as a call to prayer, and St Ann’s, like hundreds of thousands of other churches across the world, to this day rings the Angelus, a call to pause briefly at dawn, noon and dusk to raise your mind heavenward, reflect and give thanks for your day. The ringing consists of three strokes of the bell, each followed by a pause, and then nine strokes. This ancient devotion is a daily reminder of the Angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary, the Passion and the resurrection of Jesus celebrated by Christians globally at Easter.
“Be still and know that I am God”. This short and ancient verse from one of the Psalms in the Bible teaches us that if we want to experience the presence of the deeper, spiritual mysteries of life then we simply need to learn to be still, and yet our contemporary mind has too often lost our capacity for stillness. In an age where the constant call of the smart phone acts as a distraction from engaging fully with the present moment there is now a growing interest in our need to find calmness and inner peace of mind.
Are you comfortable in silence? If not, what is the cause of your discomfort? Take a few moments to pause and be still. Allow the repetitive action and sound of the lapping waves quieten your mind, and, as thoughts and worries arise, gently offer them up as prayers and let them be washed away bringing your heart back to stillness. When you feel ready you may want to partake in the tradition of the Angelus and give thanks for family, friends, provision, health and to ask for the presence of peace to dwell in your heart.
Over the next few days take time to look for moments of stillness and contemplation in your everyday life. What visual images foster a sense of stillness in you? What memories do you have of times of stillness in your life? Make the space in each day to be still and to look and listen for signs of beauty, gentleness, kindness and goodness. Make a record of these moments by journalling or taking a photo on your smart phone using our viewfinder as a frame. Encourage others to join you in seeing the world around you with a contemplative heart by tweeting your images using our #BeStillMcr.
Consider adopting the daily practice of the Angelus and use breathing spaces to punctuate your day at dawn, noon and dusk.
Lesley Sutton is a curator and visual artist