Vivos voco, I call the living,
Mortuos plango, I mourn the dead,
Festa decora, I adorn festivals,
Fulgura frango. I shatter the lightning.
+ + + Traditional Latin inscription on church bells
That folk may come to church in time, I chime;
When pleasure’s on the wing, I ring;
To speed the parting soul, I toll.
+ + + Inscription on the bell of an old village church in Devonshire
Bells in church buildings may seem perfectly obvious – but why? What is there about striking heavy bronze cups to make a loud sound that had anything to do with Christian faith or Christian community?
Christianity did not invent bells, of course. China developed bells, gongs, cymbals and singing bowls thousands of years ago; they were an important part of traditional Chinese religious practice, and were adopted by Buddhism and Hinduism. The penetrating, far reaching sound of the bells was often understood as carrying prayers to the ears of the gods and ancestors, as well as creating a meditative state of mind. When the ancient Egyptians learned how to smelt bronze, bells became a part of their religious practice, too; Moses may have carried this tradition out of Egypt and taught the Hebrew priests to sew bells to the hems of their robes, but the shofar, or ram’s-horn, was the traditional call to worship.
Christianity did not invent monasticism, either, but the disciplined daily schedule of prayer and silence in monastic communities made some sort of signaling system necessary. In the earliest Christian monasteries, monks were alerted by striking a resonant piece of wood called a semander, which is still traditional in many Orthodox traditions.
According to tradition, it was a bishop in Nola, near Naples, Italy, who first introduced bells into Christian worship around the year 400, both as a call to worship and as a way of calling attention to important parts of the service for congregations that could not see or hear much of what was going on. Bells caught on quickly, and by the early 600’s bells were so closely associated with the call to Christian prayer that Mohammed vetoed them for Muslim worship, establishing instead the tradition of the muezzin’s chanted call from a high minaret.
In the early Middle Ages, between the fall of the Roman empire and the slow development of Medieval European civilization, Christian monasteries functioned as outposts of culture and religious centers, especially outside cities. The sound of the bells calling the monks and nuns to prayer seven times a day was a connection between the cloister and the world outside; a Christian working in the fields or the kitchen could hear the bells and pause for a moment’s prayer in communion with the brothers and sisters.
Fast-forward to the English Reformation in the sixteenth century. Given the opportunity to develop a new prayer book for the independent English Church, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer turned to the monastic cycle of daily prayer, simplifying it for the use of Christians in all walks of life. The new Book of Common Prayer was anchored by the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, to be prayed either in the parish church or at home. The parish church bell, like the monastery bell, became even more important as a way of calling the people together for prayer with their neighbors, whether in the same space or separated by distance. The voice of the bell became closely associated with the parish, such that people could readily pick out the sound of their own parish bells from others.
St. Saviour’s bells have been speaking to the people of Bar Harbor for over eighty years. Many have heard the quirky story of the bells’ donation and the reason for the “temporary” steel tower, but far more important than that story, I think, is the way that our bells have worked themselves into the sensory landscape of our community. Neighbors and tourists may grumble about being awakened, and nearby dogs may go on high alert, but the slow, sonorous voice of our bells is as much a part of downtown Bar Harbor as the smell of the sea at low tide. I particularly love the interplay of our bells and the firehouse horn at noon and nine: church and state, protectors of spirit and of body, letting us know that all is well in our little village.
Not all may recognize it, but our bells are a sort of witness to the people of Bar Harbor, residents and tourists. We no longer live in a society where everybody goes to church, and the bells are just a reminder to do what we are all doing anyway. The bells have become more like a voice of one crying in the wilderness: refusing to let the world forget that we owe our existence to God and our redemption to his son Jesus Christ. The bells are a song on the breeze, celebrating the fact that the Holy Spirit still speaks and that there are people who still listen. If even one or two people stop what they are doing and offer a few moments of prayer when our bells ring, how wonderful! The voice of the bells calls each of us to prayer, to relationship with God and God’s people. Do you hear the bells?