One of my favourite ‘Advent Journey’ books is called ‘Donkey Bells’ . It was written by Catherine Doherty, the foundress of Madonna House. Terry and I have become very close to our friends at Madonna House which resides at the Marian Centre downtown. But you can find Madonna Houses all over the world.
Terry and I (before Covid) had the joy and blessing of painting every Friday at their home . The Marian Centre folks have devoted their lives to the poor of our city and they are humble folks that we admire so much.
In years past during advent we would hear a strange sound on our Friday afternoons with the good folks at the Marian Centre. We would be sitting or standing at our easels and we would hear a jingling. As various folks walked by we would imagine we heard the sound of small bells ringing.
As the weeks drew closer to Christmas the sound of bells grew stronger on these Friday afternoons. Catherine explains it best in her book, “Donkey Bells”……
” It came to me, during these days of Advent, that I should share with you a custom which is not necessarily liturgical but which adds to the enjoyment of this lovely season. It has deep spiritual connotations; at least it did for our family and for many others I knew when I was a young child.
When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me that if I was good during this holy season of Advent-and felt sure that I wanted to offer my little acts of charity and obedience throughout Advent to the little Christ Child for a gift on His birthday- then sometime during Advent, at first faintly, and then quite clearly, I would hear bells. As she put it, the first church bells.
These were the bells around the neck of the little donkey that carried Our Lord. And she was the temple of the Holy Spirit, the first “church” as it were, since Christ reposed in her. And the donkey, carrying Our Lady and sounding his bells as he walked, had the first church bells.
Around the second week of Advent, mother wore a little bracelet that had tinkling bells. As she moved her hand I could hear them tinkle, and I got excited because I associated them with the donkey’s bells.
As young as I was, my imagination would build up a lot of little stories about the trip of Our Lady from Nazareth to Bethlehem-stories which I would share with my mother, and which would spur me on to further good deeds and little sacrifices.
During the third week of Advent, mother’s bracelet miraculously got many more bells on it. Their sound grew louder and louder as Christmas approached. It was wonderful.
My brother and I used to listen: Mother’s bells were first around her wrist and then around her knee too. Then more bells, as it got closer to Christmas. We were really excited about them.
Catherine eventually introduced this little custom to Madonna House with many members wearing bells during this time. Catherine mentions in her book that the presence of the donkey in Scripture is symbolic of prophets who foretold the Incarnation. “….the ox and the ass know their Master’s voice, but Israel doesn’t know the voice of God. ” And of course a donkey is a beast of burden, ‘the animal of the poor’ Catherine says.
“God chose the humblest, the smallest in status , because among the animals the donkey is considered very low. So God is teaching us a lesson here- a lesson of humility, of poverty, and of simplicity.” And she writes, “I pray that our heart, our soul, our ears will hear very clearly ‘the bells of the donkey’, not only in Advent but throughout the year. For whoever is pure of heart and childlike shall hear the bells of the donkey ring in their life”(Donkey Bells)
Last Christmas I received an incredible gift. My husband, Terry, commissioned a lovely silver bracelet for me to remind me of this simple lesson ..of humility and caring of the poor. I am wearing it for the first time today!