We Lose So Much When We Lose Church Bells
The tintinnabulation of church bells gives the Church a voice in the world
If you hear the word “tintinnabulation,” you are almost certainly going to think of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “The Bells,” perhaps only because you are unlikely to remember anyplace else you’ve heard that word. I once heard that Poe was inspired to write that poem by the bells of Fordham University Church, my Bronx alma mater, though I don’t vouch for the veracity of that claim.
Growing up in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, I was blessed by bells. Its nine Latin and three Greek Catholic parishes that existed before diocesan “renewal” into non-existence were bell-happy. Every day at 6am, noon and 6pm, most rang Angelus bells. On Sundays, you got 15-minute warning bells before Mass started. Sometimes on Sundays and certainly on Holy Saturday evening, you knew when the consecration was taking place as bells pealed. It was not unheard of for a parish to toll the bell when someone died, and certainly as his body was being carried into church for the last time. On Saturday afternoons, bells announced the joyful birth of a new family at a wedding. On Dec. 31, the churches and factories combined to welcome the new year with joyous ringing and whistle blasts.
When I lived in Bern, Switzerland, 10 years ago, a local church struck the hours, day and night. One practice that especially impressed me was the Sonneneinladung. On Saturday nights, usually around 7pm, the churches of Bern all let out with bell ringing to “invite Sunday.” Protestant Bern took Sundays seriously. By 5pm, most stores — including the bigger box stores on the city outskirts — began closing down. On Sunday, most things were closed. Bakeries might operate until noon or 1pm to pick up some fresh bread or cheese but, by-and-large, commerce was shuttered. And the bells welcomed the coming of Sunday.
I now live in a suburb of Washington. The local Episcopal church rings a bell. It’s orderly and quite bourgeois: it rings only from 9am to 9pm, enough to create an ambience but not enough to “bother” people.
We’ve lost a lot with the loss of church bells. They have a value.
The Angelus, like the Rosary, reminded people that the Church existed, even if they didn’t always stop to pray about the central truth of our Christian faith — the Incarnation of the Son of God — and honor his Mother. The sound of church bells made the church present in the public square and, in the case of the Angelus, not just to provide some secular service (“what time is it?”) but to remind people of religious truths. They didn’t ring six or 12 times: they kept clanging, which elicited the question “why?” and opened the way for a religious answer.
The Sunday church bells did the same thing: they reminded one of the central act of Christian worship and, with nine parishes in town, the Sunday-morning-in-bed-crowd got regular and systematic reminders about where they should be. Bells tolling to mark a death or a wedding or ringing to mark a new year made the Church a part of concrete peoples’ lives. They are part of people’s lives: remember the Browns’ 1959 hit, “The Three Bells?”
And even when a church bell merely strikes the hour, it does more than just give you a chance to verify your watch’s accuracy. It’s more than just an addition to urban atmosphere. It’s a church bell that reminds people there is such a thing as a church. And, in striking the hour day and night, it reminds us of the passage of time en route to eternity. I recall a plaque in the vestibule of Mount Carmel Church in the Bronx, near Fordham, a plaque I think in fact memorializing the church bells: “When time stops, eternity begins.”
One of the things that I always found disheartening about Shanghai was the invisibility of churches — and, therefore, the transcendent — in the public space. A city of 24 million with skyscrapers that proliferated like mushrooms, that landscape had no steeples pointing to something beyond the company names that crowned their steel and glass cages.
Churches, especially steepled churches, punch through our rising-ever-higher immanence, offering a vertical corrective to our suffocating horizontalism. Church bells — their “tintinnabulation” — also gave the church voice in that world.
If, on the odd chance I encountered a priest or bishop opening rather than closing a parish, I’d make this plea: put in a steeple, or at least a bell tower. And forget the carillon — it’s the ecclesiastical version of elevator music, in my opinion — get a bell!