"Things are not the same as they used to be." The old man sitting by the wooden bench near the bus stop just across Lianga's parish church spat the out words out with disgust. In the gathering gloom of the early evening, the church bells were ringing the Angelus yet a gaggle of teenagers on their way home nonchalantly continued to walk past him, oblivious to everything except the sound of their noisy chatter and laughter.
I pondered this scene several days ago and my sympathies went out to the old man. Times have changed indeed.
When I was a young boy in Lianga in the 1970's, the minute the townspeople heard the bells ring out the evening prayer, tradition dictated that all drop whatever they were doing and everyone endured a minute or so of silence and contemplation (or prayer for those who were so inclined) while standing solemnly facing the general direction of the church and its bell tower.
Vehicles of whatever kind were expected to stop and park momentarily while the whole town seemingly held its collective breath for the duration of the bell ringing until the rhythm of the pealing quickened, reached a crescendo and then an abrupt climax. Then as the final note faded away, the town would suddenly come back to life, the general silence interrupted and cut short as everyone hurried to finish what they have been doing and anxiously prepare for the ending of another day.
It did not matter whether you were a Catholic or not. Respect for a town tradition and the fact that everyone did it with grace and good-natured acceptance had a compelling effect even on outsiders and visitors. To snub the moment of silence and prayerful reverence was to invite a sharp rebuke and undue attention. Most visitors instead often choose to comply rather than offend local sensibilities and almost all of them later on would express approval and even envy for what they considered a quaint yet admirable tradition.
Nowadays, the tradition of the evening Angelus prayer is still being observed in Lianga although the practice has become more and more "voluntary"rather than coercive. There are even those, especially among the younger generation who think of themselves as more worldly and sophisticated, who consider it a badge of honor or distinction to deliberately and publicly flaunt their disregard for what they consider to be an obsolete and irrelevant custom.
I have always liked the tradition of the Angelus evening prayer for more secular rather than religious reasons. To me the minute or two spent in communal silence and stillness has always been, in retrospect, a proper way for a community to collectively mark the end of every day especially in a world where the pace and rhythm of life has become become so fast that we have lost the time or the inclination to just regularly step back and take stock of the events of our daily existence.
To be admonished and given the call and the time do so is, in my view, a blessing in itself. After all, we need to be reminded many times that life is not just about constant movement but must also include the time to pause momentarily and take note of the milestones we have passed, to check our bearings and catch our breath before pushing on.
To do such a thing together as a community of people is simply to acknowledge the fact that although we may be individual persons, many of us share a common existence, possess collective memories and have experienced a shared history. It does not diminish us as individuals to acknowledge that fact and the reality that in more ways than one, our own individual lives are enormously enriched and made more meaningful because of those whose lives have become intertwined with our own.
But the old man near the church is probably right. Things have changed and will continue to change. In time, perhaps, the evening Angelus prayer in Lianga will become a thing of the past. The church bells will ring no more the 6 o'clock prayer and each day's end in this town will be just like what it is in many other places all over this country and the world; hurried, routine and totally unremarkable.
And when that happens, something beautiful and poignant will be seen and heard no more.