This past week I played in the handbell choir at my church, something that I became involved with out of loving the sound of the bells played at Christmas. Handbell choir also was a big release to me in the months after the loss of my late wife. I both had friends in the choir as well as have made new friends, while most importantly there is a power to music to open up the heart and soul. Playing the songs with the choir opened up my heart to joy in new ways and helped me find some joy on dark days.
The bell has significance here in the southland, significance that ties in with the series we’ve just finished on the prayers. Growing up I always noticed, with a bit of awe, the brick and cobblestone churches that seemed to tower from southern streets, both the busy streets of the army town where I grew up but also the winding tree-filled or tobacco field surrounding country roads. I remember too the white frame church my great aunts and uncles did family reunion, where daddy said they played no piano or organ, and the preacher could go for three hours straight. In many of the churches are bells. Growing up I would hear them toll throughout the day, not knowing the reason. At college, attending the Baptist school Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC, I remember loving to hear the bells marking near lunchtime to the end of the normal workday.
What I did not know is that they were marking the “hours” of the Christian tradition. We modern Christians often fail to be taught that, just as Muslims traditionally have set times in which they are called to stop the busyness of life and pray, so the Christian tradition historically has invited believers to pray at set times of day: in the morning when we rise, in mid-day, at sunset, and so on. We can find allusions to such traditions existing as early as the Didache, a late first or early second century document describing early Christian worship traditions. This tradition stems from the practices of Judaism of morning, evening, and mid-day prayer, which you find alluded to in psalms when they speak of awakening the dawn with their prayers for instance or in the story of Daniel when we read of him becoming in trouble due to his stopping the day regularly for prayer.
The tradition of churches ringing bells goes back to this earlier tradition. Originally when the bells were rung it was a call to prayer, inviting the people of the community who had faith in their heart or longed to have such faith to stop what they are doing, pause for a moment, and open their hearts to God, to each other, to their deepest selves, and to God’s world through meditation and prayer.
These bells had a similar role at one time in the south-land which the “trumpets” of ancient Israel had, calling people to special times of prayer in addition to these regular hours. Notice Joel 2’s use of such horns:
“Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord, your God?
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.”
Though sometimes rang to call us to special times of prayer — such as national disaster or time of war — usually the church bells call us to routine and daily prayer.
In fact there are traditional prayers and readings suggested for each of these divine hours. The following link has details on these prayers and readings: http://www.explorefaith.org/prayer/prayer/fixed/pray_the_hours.php
Also Phyllis Tickle has done some great work on this topic. Here is an article with detailed information on the prayers of the hours church bells call us to, even here in the south-land: http://www.phyllistickle.com/fixed-hour-prayer/ Here is a link to one of her many books on this topic: http://www.amazon.com/Divine-Hours-Pocket-Phyllis-Tickle/dp/0195316932
In one of his thought-provoking works on spirituality in a post-modern world, Leonard Sweet suggested a return to the practice of bells as call to prayer. He makes the point that due to the advent of modern technology which does in fact break up the natural cycle of life so the original timing of the Divine Hours of prayer may not make sense, also we have regular chimes. There is a chime or bell often as we turn our car. There is one from our phone or alarm waking us to morning. There is one when we turn on our computer. Many of us have chimes at work — announcing the start or end of the workday, the call (in the medical field) for various codes and responses, and so on. Such sounds can just be noises. But Sweet recommends we embrace such sounds as our own bells calling us to pray. He asks us to envision what our life would be like if each such sound invited us to a moment of meditation, mindfulness, or momentary prayer.
I want to conclude with the words of Sarah Jarosz’s stirring song “Ring Them Bells” They always call me to a kind of awareness and openess to life, which is the heart of all prayer.
May it bless you this day, as you learn to look and listen for the bells amidst the noise of the day, opening to God, life, others, your deepest self, and God’s good world.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Ring Them Bells
Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams
For they’re deep and they’re wide
And the world on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride
Ring them bells Saint Peter
where the four winds blow
Ring them bells with an iron hand
So the people will know
For it’s rush hour now
On the wheel and the plow
And the sun is going down upon the sacred cow.
Ring them bells Sweet Martha for the poor man’s son
Ring them bells so the world will know that God is one
For the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled with lost sheep
Ring them bells for the blind and the deaf
Ring them bells for all of us who are left
Ring them bells for the chosen few
Who will judge the many when the game is through
Ring them bells for the time that flies
For the child that cries
When the innocence dies
Ring them bells Saint Catherine from the top of the room
Ring them from the fortress for the lilies that bloom
For the lines are long and the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong