The Bells of Our Lives

Though I cannot claim any responsibility for the christening of this journal, its suggestive name inspired this reflection on the various ways, traditional or unconventional, that bells have historically been treated by the peoples of history from whom we are culturally descended.

The tower of Dimnent Chapel seems to have been an obvious motivation to the divines that have given us The Bell Tower, to say nothing of the various diverse belfries that watch o v e r the City of Holland, but there are happy — if coincidental — lessons to be gleaned from historic theologies and philosophies of the bell that may yet inspire and inform our vision of what this journal may be for our little polis of learning. 

Over the centuries, bells have gained sufficient purchase in the lives of Christians that they are in some places themselves members of the community with their own special authority. In London, for instance, the Bow bells of St Mary-le-Bow Church contribute important threads to the mythos of the city. In the legend of Richard Whittington — of Dick Whittington and His Cat fame, for the lettered and learned among us — the hero contemplates abandoning London on account of his hard life as a house servant, only to be convinced by the Bow bells, who promise him future success, to persevere. He eventually becomes the Lord Mayor of the capital, and, further cementing their place in local lore, it is also said that to be a true cockney, one needs to be born in earshot of the Bow bells. Just as important as their ringing is the silence of the bells, as seen in the French tradition of les cloches volantes, the flying bells. It is the tradition of the Latin Church that from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday through Easter the bells are not to be rung. The French explain the custom as on account of the bells flying to Vatican City, bearing the grief of all those who mourn the Crucifixion of the Lord. There, they receive a papal blessing from the Roman pontiff and begin their return journey, collecting chocolate and colored eggs for the well-behaved children of France. The treats are air-dropped in gardens, which the nice children may scour once awoken when the bells ring in Easter.

More broadly, the authority of the bells is related to how they watch over varied aspects of the community’s life. In Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame,¹ the opening number, “The Bells of Notre Dame,”² recounts how the rhythms of Parisian life are set to the tolls of the bells, and how nothing can be hidden from their attentive eyes. Gazing on the physically disfigured Quasimodo and the powerful Archdeacon Frollo, the observant bells poignantly invite the audience carefully to consider, “Who is the monster and who is the man?” And in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Golden Legend,³ the bells of Strasbourg Cathedral explain their religious and political office, even while under attack by Lucifer and his demons:

Laudo Deum verum, plebem voco, congrego clerum
(I praise the True God, I call the people, I gather the clergy);

Defunctos ploro, nimbum fugo, festa decoro
(I weep for the dead, I chase away storm clouds, I adorn feasts).

Funera plango, fulmina frango, sabbata pango
(I mourn funerals, I break lightning, I announce the sabbaths);

Excito lentos, dissipo ventos, paco cruentos
(I rouse the lazy, I scatter the winds, I pacify bloodshed)

These lines summarize how the bells connect heaven and earth as mediators between God and man. Not only do they pray; the images of winds and storm clouds capture the belief that bells offer divine protection against both natural (storms, earthquakes, etc.) and preternatural (demons are traditionally called “powers of the air”) foes. The bells also mark time, announcing Sundays and other holy days (sabbaths), times of the day (the hours of prayer in the divine office), and sacred moments (for example, the elevation of the Holy Eucharist at Mass). They also inform the people of special occasions, such as births, weddings, and deaths. This last responsibility is the inspiration for the title of Dorothy Sayers’ mystery novel, The Nine Tailors,4 which reveals quite a bit in campanology — the science of the music of bells. The term “tailor” comes from telling, which comes from tolling. When a someone died in a parish, the patterns for the tolling corresponded to the sex, age, and state (cleric or lay) of the deceased. At one part of the death knell, the bell was rung twice three times for a woman and three times three for a man. Hence the expression, “Nine tailors make a man.” As this tradition developed, the passing bell — the bell that tolls for the dead — would be rung on new year’s day to mark the passing of the old year.

Given the importance of the bells to the community, it is no surprise that their making is a momentous event, with complex and solemn rites. Since it is made from a mold, the bell is technically cast. One excellent dramatization of the medieval process is found in Andrei Rublev,5 the 1966 epic biographical drama whose eponymous subject is the 15th Century Russian iconographer who produced, among others, the justly famous icons of the Holy Trinity and Christ the Redeemer. At the beginning of the last episode in the film, “The Bell,” Rublev has given up iconography and is living under a vow of silence. Boriska, the son of a recently deceased master bellmaker, sets out to cast a bell, and we are led through the various stages — selection of clay, building of the mold, firing of furnaces, hoisting of the bell — of the undertaking. Boriska is almost crushed by the spiritual and political weight of the task: Should he and his crew fail, the Grand Duke will behead them. When Boriska succeeds and the bell lets out its first peal, rich and full, the young man and the watching people are overwhelmed. Moved by the spectacle of the young artist and his rejoicing audience, and coming to appreciate the possibilities of his own art once more, Rublev abandons his vow of silence and tells Boriska, who has collapsed into his arms, “You’ll cast bells. I’ll paint icons.” The successful casting restores to Rublev, as fittingly and beautifully intertwined, both his voice and his art.

But the casting is only part of the story. A church bell also needs to be blessed and made both fit for its function and a member of the parish. The rite is colloquially called a “baptism” or “christening” given its resemblance to the Sacrament. In the consecration according to the traditional ritual of the Roman Church, the bell is first washed with water blessed by a bishop and seven psalms are sung over it. It is then marked with the sign of the Cross and anointed eleven times: seven times outside with oleum infirmorum, the oil of the sick, and four times inside with sacred chrism. Following this, it is smoked with a special incense of myrrh and thymiama (the latter’s recipe, tradition has it, was given to Moses by God). Prayers are recited throughout the rite, including an exorcism and a petition that God will “lay low the powers of the air, so that hearing this bell they may tremble and flee before the standard of the holy cross of Thy Son depicted upon it.”6 Finally, the bell is solemnly named (usually after a saint or its maker), for which reason the rite is informally called a “baptism,” and the Gospel of Jesus’ dinner with Mary and Martha proclaimed. The sisters are respective symbols of the contemplative and active lives, signifying how the bells call Christians to all the aspects of a life of faith. In Sayers’ The Nine Tailors,7 the bells’ names are partly explained by their inscriptions. Thus, Gaude: “Gaude, Gaudy, Domini in laude” (Rejoice, Gaudy [a family name], in the praise of the Lord); Sabaoth: “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth” (Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts); John: “John Cole made me, John Presbyter paid me, John Evangelist aid me”; Jericho: “From Jericho to John a-Groate there is no bell can better my note”; Jubilee: “Jubilate Deo” (Shout to the Lord [with joy]); Dimity: “Nunc Dimittis, Domine” (Now dismiss, Lord, [your servant]); Batty Thomas: “Abbot Thomas set me here and bade me ring both loud and clear”; and Tailor Paul: “Paul is my name, honour that same.”8 Each bell has a proper name and, indeed, a voice and personality proper to it. So the music goes forth from “little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them.”9

Possessing voices, the bells have a mysterious capacity to speak. This is partly alluded to even in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan,10 where Tinker Bell’s speech consists of the sounds of a tinkling bell, comprehensible only to those fluent in the language of faerie. In George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan,11 Joan of Arc reveals that she hears the voices of the angels and saints who direct her through the tolling of the bells, whether in the countryside or in the city. From a more mundane perspective, the bells are public voices and symbols, meaning, therefore, that Christianity is not a private religion, but a relationship with God that has public expression. During a trip to Erfurt, Germany, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the public vocation of Christians, saying, “We will resemble the famous bell of the Cathedral . . . which bears the name ‘Gloriosa’, the glorious. It is thought to be the largest free-swinging medieval bell in the world. It is a living sign of our deep rootedness in the Christian tradition, but also a summons to set out upon the mission. . . . May it inspire us, after the example of the saints, to ensure that witness to Christ is both seen and heard in the world in which we live.”12 Given the powerful, public characters of the bells, it comes as no surprise that the Pact of Umar, the 9th Century treaty dictating terms for subdued Christians living in Muslim Syria, forbids the ringing of church bells, unless they are rung lightly or discreetly.

However, where bells are allowed to speak they are able to fulfill their roles persuasively. Analogously to how public servants swear to defend the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” bells are defenders against threats visibilia et invisibilia, visible and invisible. As already noted, this commission includes protection against natural disasters and infernal powers. As protectors, bells are therefore custodians of peace, which explains how they also came to be seen as possessing a strong sense of justice and a willingness to punish evildoers who threaten their people. Early in The Nine Tailors,13 a young woman is warned to be mindful of the bell Batty Thomas, which has killed two men — though Tailor Paul’s bellringer recalls that those men had bad reputations and that a righteous heart need have no fear of the bells. In Brian Jacques’ Redwall14 series, the self-proclaimed king of searats, Gabool the Wild, is driven mad after stealing the Joseph Bell. After the bell is installed in Redwall Abbey, the mouse Matthias slays Cluny the Scourge by cutting the rope that holds the bell, which drops and crushes the rat, instantly killing him. The fall cracks the Joseph Bell, destroying it, and from its remains two bells are cast, Matthias and Methusaleh. Years later, these two, during a ringing, kill the evil raven Tarul, who had assaulted the Abbey and then retreated to spy on it from the bell tower. In the Web of Spider-Man #115 comic book, Peter Parker is compromised by wearing a symbiote that corrupts his conscience. Luckily, the symbiote is vulnerable to intense sonic waves and Peter is able to free himself from the contagion by climbing into a church tower and ringing the bell, which drives the symbiote away. The cinematic realization of this scene is one of the few virtues of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3,16 even as we celebrate the appearance of Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the original Home Alone,17 the isolated and lonely Kevin McCallister confronts his fears in a church and as its bells begin to ring he gathers up the courage to defend his home, with the installation of his fortifications set to a rendition of “Carol of the Bells.”18 Indeed, so common is the trope that bells act for justice that in Pixar’s Coco,19 the villain Ernesto de la Cruz is ‘twice’ killed by a falling bell. The first instance occurs at the beginning of the movie (where the bell has a cross above it), and is a subtle signal that Ernesto may not be so deserving of the protagonist’s devotion. Therefore, it is not too much to say that when a bell is silenced, a community loses not just a voice but a guardian.

As watching and executing justice over man, bells are symbols of a power and authority superior to the human. Part of the symbol is captured in how their towers are often the highest point in a town. Local engineer and architect Nick Rolinski pointed out to my Philosophy of Technology class that in the residential parts of Holland’s south side, for instance, the buildings that rise above the tree line are mainly the bell towers of the various churches. These edifices would have functioned as landmarks by which the residents and visitors in the city oriented themselves. For my part, it is theologically significant that it is precisely the bell towers that occupy this orienting role, that people are to find their bearings in reference to them. The very dead Greek philosopher Protagoras famously said, “Man is the measure of all things.” This phrase has often been interpreted to mean that it is man (or men, i.e., a community) that gets to define or determine what is true, good, or beautiful in the world, that the fundamental meaning of life and the world is man-made. Arrayed against this stance are the Hebraic and Platonic traditions, which recognize that truth and goodness are ultimately God-given, human-independent realities that have their source and summit in a reality that transcends all beings. For the Hebrews and Plato, man is not the measure; rather, in the light of truth, he has been weighed, measured, and found wanting. For this reason, to live well means to live illuminated by true, abiding standards of goodness that we do not make up. The attempt to define goodness etsi Deus non daretur, as if God did not exist, is to place man in the place of God and ultimately to plunge into meaningless voluntarism, the bare contest of wills. Bell towers, on the other hand, help us find our place precisely by pointing us to our divine origin and destiny — by reminding us that we are only human, they preserve our noble humanity.

In view of these rambling musings, you might imagine my grave disappointment when I discovered that Hope College’s tower houses not bells, but chimes. Put not your trust in princes, we have been warned; as Plato knew, this is a world of deceptive appearances. Still, I have two consolations. The first is perhaps petty: to my relief, Calvin University — née College — also lacks bells and is said to have subsisted on chimes. Perhaps there is a deeper cultural reason for this, beyond good, old fashioned Dutch frugality. In any event, at least we do not have to envy our lesser neighbors — though it would have been a pleasure to lord this over them had we the advantage. My second consolation is that if this journal is a bell tower, then the voices within these pages may be considered the bells of our community, bearing inspiration, benediction, and protection as far as Providence may carry them. If it not be presumptuous, let our hope for this vessel be that “when its melody shall sound in the ears of the peoples, may the devotion of their faith increase; may all the snares of the enemy, the crash of hail-storms and hurricanes, [and] the violence of tempests be driven far away; may the deadly thunder be weakened, may the winds become salubrious, and be kept in check.”20

Ding dong! merrily on high,
in heav’n the bells are ringing.
Ding dong! verily the sky,
is riv’n with angel singing.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis.

Kevin M. Kambo, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Hope College.

Spring 2022 Table of Contents

1 The Hunchback of Notre Dame, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (Walt Disney Pictures, 1996).

2 Stephen Schwartz, “The Bells of Notre Dame.”

3 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Golden Legend (1851).

4 Dorothy Sayers, The Nine Tailors (Orion Publishing Group, 2019), 219.

5 Andrei Rublev, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (Mosfilm, 1966).

6. “The Blessings of a Bell,” Pontificale Romanum (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1961).

7 Dorothy Sayers, the Nine Tailors.

8 Dorothy Sayers, The Nine Tailors, 65-67.

9 Dorothy Sayers, The Nine Tailors, 27.

10. J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (Hodder & Soughton, 1911).

11 George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan (GBS Books, 2010).

12 Benedict XVI, Homily, 24 September 2011.

13 Dorothy Sayers, The Nine Tailors.

14. Brain Jacques, Redwall (Ace Books, 1986-2011).

15 Louise Simonson, Web of Spider-Man #1 (Marvel Comics, 1985).

16 Spider-Man 3, directed by Sam Raimi (Sony Pictures Releasing, 2007).

17 Home Alone, directed by Chris Columbus (20th Century Fox, 1990).

18 “Carol of the Bells,” Mykola Leontovych (1914).

19 Coco, directed by Adrian Molina and Lee Unkrich (Walt Disney Pictures, 2017).

20 “The Blessing of a Bell,” Pontificale Romanum.

21 “Ding Dong! Merrily on High,” George Ratcliffe Woodward (1924).

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1 Comment

  1. A great piece of work. Philosophically conceptualized, and biblically and historically contextualized, with literary analysis for effect.

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