When the alarm begins to sound

Posted: January 19, 2018 in Uncategorized


Last spring during a portion of my sabbatical leave at an abbey in the midlands of England I spent a week in the hermitage of the abbey, a solitary cabin that was located in a grove of trees perhaps a quarter of a mile from the mother house. It was lovely and simple: a sitting area with a desk, a kitchenette and bathroom, a bedroom with enough room for just that, a bed. And of course the extension of the hermitage was its porch and the porch out to the woods and fields.

One night, perhaps the first night I was there, in the midst of deep sleep, a horrendous siren sounded. It was the blaring of an alarm horn, deafening in its shrieking. It worked; I jumped up and took stock through bleary eyes. Was there a fire? Gas leak? Scone and tea stores running low? What?

Not identifying any threat whatsoever I cranked open the windows and propped open the door. I stood on the front porch looking and listening to the spectacle. But nothing. After five minutes of this thunderous display I moved to the next phase, the “how do I disarm this thing?” I started searching for fuse boxes and panels. I explored the horn mechanism itself and tried to figure out how to detach it. Anything.

Then suddenly, silence. It stopped and left nothing but an echo in its wake. Was that it? Would it explode on the scene again? After battening down the hatches and locking the door I crawled back into bed with no little suspicion. Would this ghost spring forth again just as I dosed off? But no, nothing more.

The next morning I walked to the abbey for some breakfast and prayers and the talk among others who were staying in one of the larger guest houses was all about the middle of the night alarm. Could they hear my blaring alarm all the way from the hermitage? No, it seems that the alarm went off in their guesthouse, too. And so the mystery was revealed – the false alarm went off everywhere and my alarm system, even in my remote location, was wired to theirs.  I was not as detached as I assumed, at least in that regard.

Since we are fairly individualistic people we always assume that the alarm that is blaring has its source with us, with our life, with our ordinariness. But the truth is that most of the time that the canary in the mine shaft expires it is because the whole mine is vulnerable. And so it is when whole groups become ill, families unwell, and even whole nations dysfunctional. We hear the siren in our hermitage but the alarm is sounding everywhere for reasons that seem unrelated to me.

Like the person who tries to waterproof their own basement only to discover that the whole neighborhood is flooded, the answers are often collective ones; the problems, challenges, inequities, and suffering that we face are rooted in systems that affect us all. Moral people who have a sense of justice, the good and right, know that there will never be peace for one unless there is peace for all. And the illusion that we are perfectly self-reliant and removed from the struggles of the many is often shattered when we least expect it, in the middle of the night when we were sleeping safe and sound and the alarm began to sound.

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