Jean-Francois Millet (1857)
I’ve always loved this painting—peasant man and woman, as they hear the ringing of the Angelus bell, humbly pausing near the end of a long day in their fields, to acknowledge the Source of the goodness they are reaping, even though that goodness seems rather scant, given the size of the tiny basket of potatoes at the woman’s feet. In spite of this, the peasants pause, and the quiet humility of these two, heads bowed, man holding his cap in his hand, woman with hands held prayerfully together, becomes itself for me the gentle chiming of a silent bell that calls me to a deeper reverence.
I’ve always assumed the couple was praying a simple prayer of thanks and sending up a request for help in all their labors. But recently I’ve learned more about the Angelus bell, and that has made me re-think my assumption. The ringing of the Angelus bell dates back to sometime in the 12th or 13th century, and it is a bell that calls for the faithful to remember the visit of the angel Gabriel to the virgin Mary to tell her that she was to give birth to God’s son. In some places (contemplative monasteries, e.g.) the Angelus still rings even today, at 6 a.m., at noon, and then again at 6 p.m.
So Millet’s peasant man and woman are not simply saying “thanks” and “help”; they are most probably praying a prescribed litany written to help them recall the annunciation story and to help them hear anew Gabriel’s “blessed are you” and then Mary’s “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” I hope as they reflect and re-imagine this story of old, these hard-working peasants are also able to put themselves into the story, able to hear God’s word spoken, not just to Mary, but also to them as well: “blessed are you, you workers weary at the end of a long day of toil; blessed are you, for God’s grace surrounds and fills you, and truly God is with you, even as God was with Mary.” We cannot see their faces, but I like to think they are quietly smiling, truly happy and humbled as they listen to this gracious benediction. Their bearing certainly suggests that their response to God’s blessing of them is an echo of Mary’s submissive response to Gabriel: “Here we are, God, your servants; let your will be done in our lives.”
I don’t live where I can hear the chiming of any Angelus bell. But I think I would do well to listen to an inner Angelus, maybe even three times a day(!), to listen and to pause in my labors to recognize God’s presence and God’s gracious blessing in my life. Pause and offer thanks that God continues to be with me and to overshadow my life with God’s constant attention and care. Pause as well to reaffirm my desire and my intent to say with Mary, “Here am I, your servant; let it be with me according to your word, and let my life give birth anew to Christ’s love for those around me.”
Recently I’ve put a small copy of Millet’s “The Angelus” on my desk. Unfortunately, it doesn’t ring 3 times a day to call me to reflection and prayer, but I look at it often, and I pray—often—that I will learn to live in the quiet reverence of Millet’s peasant farmers. They make it look so easy! But I think we all know it’s not.