Father Jim Bernacki
Tuesday, July 30, 2013 —
Recently our church (Christ Episcopal in Albemarle) was gifted with an automated carillon or bell system. Our practice in recent months is to have the bells rung five minutes before our Sunday morning services and at the beginning of each service. Carillon systems like ours also play religious hymns at various times of the day.
Why are church bells rung? In addition to calling people to worship on Sundays, they have been used for other religious and non-religious purposes. For instance, they have been tolled to announce a funeral and “pealed” to announce a wedding or other festive occasion. Civilly, they were implemented to warn neighbors of impending emergencies and to mark certain national events. I remember hearing the bells of my home church – along with the bells of other churches – rung at an appointed time on July 4, 1976, announcing the United States’ Bicentennial. At the invitation of our president, many of our churches tolled their bells this past December, in remembrance of the victims of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.
Although some church carillon systems are programmed to announce the beginning of each hour, and even quarter hour, most are set to announce service times and times of prayer. At our church, we follow the “Catholic” custom of ringing the bells at 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. This custom is referred to as “ringing the Angelus bells.” (Typically, the Angelus bells should also be rung at 6 a.m., but we don’t want to prematurely awaken our neighbors).
The “Angelus” is a prayer that Roman Catholics are asked to say three times a day – when rising, at 12 p.m., and in the evening – to remind them that God is central in their lives. The origin of ringing church bells for this purpose was to ask farmers and neighbors to pause and pray wherever they were, while the monks (i.e., members of a designated religious community) in the local monastery offered their prayer to God in common, for the needs of the world. Thus, the ringing bells were miniature “calls to worship” and prayer to all those who were within their hearing.
Here is a quote from Thomas Merton, taken from Chapter 16 of his book Thoughts in Solitude: “Bells are meant to remind us that God alone is good, that we belong to Him, that we are not living for this world. They break in upon our cares in order to remind us that all things pass away and that our preoccupations are not important … They are the voice of our alliance with the God of heaven. They tell us we are His true temple. They call us to peace with Him within ourselves … The bells say: Business does not matter. Rest in God and rejoice, for this world is only the figure and the promise of a world to come, and only those who are detached from transient things can possess the substance of an eternal promise.”
If you hear church bells at 12 p.m. or at 6 p.m. – or at other times as well – please see this as an opportunity to take time out from your schedule to pray to the God who created us in His own image, to the God who redeemed us in Christ and the God who sanctifies us in the Holy Spirit. You’ll be glad you did.
Father Jim Bernacki is pastor of Christ Episcopal Church in Albemarle.