Value of Bells: Serendipitous Beauty

For the next few days, I’ll post on the most important reasons for bells in our current time. I look forward to your responses in the comments!

One reason I think tower bells are important today is the occasion they provide for serendipitous beauty. A passerby is walking along, minding her own business, when she suddenly hears a bell (or two, or three, or many) and recognizes it as a beautiful sound—perhaps even as music. It is an unexpected moment of beauty in her day. So many of our aesthetic experiences are curated to us as a discreet entities; I find it endearing to still have artistry interwoven with our daily life. These experiences can also trigger awe and its accompanying effects.

In this respect, tower bells function similarly to public art works. Sculptures, murals, and other outdoor visual arts are meant to provide an aesthetic experience for the passers-by in a public setting. Tower bells are the aural analogue. And how many other aural analogues can you think of? Perhaps music piped onto the sidewalk outside of stores? There are not too many instances of pleasant sounds, let alone music, being performed in public for the enjoyment of an incidental audience.

I personally love the serendipitous moment of beauty that catches me unawares. That’s the stuff I live for! And that will bring me to my next post on the second reason tower bells are important—their function as a soundmark.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s Exit Strategy [Update]

Now that we’ve had a few days to examine the dress, the flowers, the fascinators, etc. of the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, let’s take a listen to their exit out of St. George’s Chapel in Windsor.

I hear the guard announcing the couple, people cheering, a woman(?) screaming (really not sure if that’s a person or some kind of noise maker), a choir singing…and…wait…there’s NO BELLS. Yes, that’s right. NO BELLS. What are a beautiful ring of bells for if not to ring for a royal wedding? The bells of St. George’s Chapel rang for the recent birth of Prince Louis Arthur Charles, so…why exactly were they not rung for this occasion? Hmm. Somebody doesn’t like bells. Not a friend of mine.

I’m huffy right now, but I’ll get over it. Here’s a link to hear what the bells could have sounded like for our gleaming married couple.

Update: there were bells! They rang during the carriage procession, and you can hear them faintly in the video below. Whew! Thanks, Matthew Higby, for correcting me.

Homage to MLK Jr.

The National Civil Rights Museum is calling on churches and institutions in the United States and beyond to ring their bells to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On April 4, 2018, bells will ring to commemorate 50 years after Dr. King’s death and his legacy in the Civil Rights Movement. Bells will toll 39 times to honor the years of his life.

The acoustic commemoration will mirror the spread of the news on April 4, 1968. Bells will ring first at the National Civil Rights Museum and the King Center at 6:01 pm, next they will ring in the city of Memphis at 6:03 pm, then nationally at 6:05 pm, and finally internationally at 6:07 pm. This is a beautiful representation of the impact of one man and his death around the globe.

If you have tower bells to ring, consider participating!

Bell Founding of Beit Chabab, Lebanon

A find about the last bell founder in Lebanon piqued my interest in bells in the middle east. I was intrigued by the explanation that the casting of big bells didn’t arrive in Lebanon until the Crusaders came through in the twelfth century.*

Hadn’t they been making bells already for a long time? Yes, the people in the ancient middle eastern civilizations (Persian, Egyptian, Byzantine) made bells—but only smaller ones, no larger than hand bells. These bells were used for religious ceremonies, among other uses. The early Christians adopted the use of bells from the local pagan rituals, and early Christian missionaries from Egypt spread the use of hand bells to Ireland and then to continental Europe.

At first, small bells were used during Masses similar to those used in pagan rituals. The first evidence we have that bells were used to summon the faithful to Mass comes from the sixth century. A cleric from Carthage (modern-day Libya) sends a bell to an abbot near Naples, Italy, with the instruction to ring it to gather together the people for worship. The tradition of ringing bells before Christian services, then, dates back at least 1500 years and likely originates from Africa.

Western churches spread the use of bells until by the eleventh and twelfth centuries, even small country churches had tower bells to signal to the congregation. In Lebanon and most of the middle east, the Arab invasion of the seventh century brought a halt to bell ringing. The new dominant regime of Islam forced the cessation of bells; Christianity had to go further underground. Despite the hostile rulers, the Maronites, a branch of Christianity, survived in the mountains of Lebanon. When the first wave of Crusaders came through the region on their way to Jerusalem in the twelfth century, the Maronites welcomed them. The Crusaders, in turn, introduced them to bell casting. The casting of large tower bells in the middle east was born. With the departure of the Crusaders in the thirteenth century, most middle eastern bells fell silent. Because of their isolation, however, the Maronites maintained their bell-ringing tradition.

Beit Chabab’s bell founding could date back as far as the twelfth century when the Crusaders marched through. Naffah Naffah, the last of the town’s bell founders, traces his metallurgical roots back to the eighteenth century, when Russians taught his ancestor how to cast bells, a craft that has been handed down through the family ever since.

*Information from this post taken from Percival Price, Bells & Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 84-98.

Kindred Spirits

Up in Quebec, kindred spirits–Daniel Désormiers, Steffen Jowett, François Mathieu, and Michael Rowan–are also advocating for tower bells.

A few quotes from an interview struck me. Rev. G. Malcolm Sinclair of the Metropolitan United in downtown Toronto says, “Instead of people saying, ‘We are part of this community, and the church speaks for us,’” soon, he says, the sentiment will be, “‘Who are these people and why are they making these funny noises?’ You know, I can see that coming.”

That’s true. If bells no longer speak to the values, events, and traditions of the people in the vicnity, the bells will seem like disrupters. And then the next step is not too far away–ceasing with the ringing altogether.

Related to this quote is that from François Mathieu, an artist and author of a book on Quebec’s bells: “The system whereby these ringing sounds are to be validated is very much contested because the religion is itself contested.”

If the function of bells is tied to religion, and religion itself is contested, what to do about the bells? I think the path forward for tower bells in our increasingly secularized societies is to have them ring in meaningful ways for the surrounding community, not only the church community. That’s not to say we should abolish ringing bells for services or other church-related reasons. It’s a both/and situation, not either/or. Bells can represent the voice of the church for some, and represent other values for others. Bells already ring to commemorate significant events in the United States, such as 9/11.  Bells can ring for local or hyperlocal events–farmer’s markets, parades, the last day of school at the neighboring elementary school, etc.–the key is for people to feel like the bells are ringing for them–not just for the church goer.

And really, in a way, this is getting back to a particular point in time in western Europe  in which bells rang for churches, but also for commerce and community. Bells rang to announce Masses, but also to mark the time, curfew, and fire alarms, among other things. The sound was sacred and secular. This, I think, is the path forward to have bells around for another millennium.