Sunday, July 12, 2009

Church Bells

Bells have long played a part in Christian liturgy and architecture; they have seeped into our very consciousness so that it is difficult to imagine any church without a bell tower. Before modern times, church bells were an intrinsic part of any community. Not only did they call people to prayer but they warned of dangers and helped to celebrate happy times. In Soviet Russia, when the Bolsheviks wished to take possession of the minds and hearts of a village, not only would they arrest the priest but they would also confiscate the bells.

Where did church bells originate? While there is evidence small bells were used in antiquity and are mentioned in the Old Testament, it seems that it was the Celtic monks who incorporated bells into Christian living. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, bells were introduced into Europe by the Irish and English monks:
The word clocca (Fr. cloche; Ger. Glocke; Eng. clock) is interesting because in this case it is definitely known what was meant by it. It was certainly Irish in origin and it occurs at an early date both in Latin and in the Irish form clog. Thus it is found in Book of Armagh and is used by Adamnan in his life of St. Columbkill written c. 685. The Irish and English missionaries no doubt imported it into Germany where it appears more than once in the Sacramentary of Gellone. It is plain that in primitive Celtic lands an extraordinary importance was attached to bells. A very large number of these ancient bells, more than sixty in all -- the immense majority being Irish -- are still in existence. Many of them are reputed to have belonged to Irish saints and partake of the character of relics. The most famous is that of St. Patrick....
The bell of St. Patrick exists to this day and is said to have been used by the saint to summon his converts to Mass. The ancient Irish bells are described as follows:
The Irish for a bell is cloc, clocc, or clog, akin to the English clock. The diminutive form cluccene is used to denote a small bell, called also lam-chlog, 'hand-bell. St. Patrick and his disciples constantly used consecrated bells in their ministrations. How numerous they were in Patrick's time we may understand from the fact, that whenever he left one of his disciples in charge of a church, he gave him a bell: and it is recorded that on the churches of one province alone - Connaught - he bestowed fifty. To supply these he had in his household three smiths, whose chief occupation was to make bells. The most ancient Irish bells were quadrangular in shape, with rounded corners, and made of iron: facts which we know both from the ecclesiastical literature, and from the specimens that are still preserved....
The Catholic Encyclopedia traces the development of the use of church bells:
The first ecclesiastical use of bells was to announce the hour of church services. It is plain that in the days before watches and clocks some such signal must have been a necessity, more especially in religious communities which assembled many times a day to sing the Divine praises. Among the Egyptian cenobites we read that a trumpet used for this purpose ; among the Greeks a wooden board or sheet of metal was struck with a hammer; in the West the use of bells eventually prevailed. In the Merovingian period there is no trustworthy evidence for the existence of large bells capable of being heard at a distance, but, as it became needful to call to church the inhabitants of a town or hamlet, bell turrets were built, and bells increased in size, and as early as the eighth century we hear of two or more bells in the same church.
Bells also came to be used during the liturgy itself, a practice which goes back to the Exodus, as explained in an article in the Adoremus Bulletin:
The use of bells is mentioned four times in the Old Testament of the Bible. Exodus 28:33-35 describes the vestments worn by the high priest Aaron as he approached the Arc of the Covenant in the Holiest of Holies:
On its skirts you shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet stuff, around its skirts, with bells of gold between them, a golden bell and a pomegranate, round about on the skirts of the robe. And it shall be upon Aaron when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, lest he die.
This description of Aaron's extremely ornate priestly vestments is repeated in Exodus 39:25-26 and again in Ecclesiastes 45:9:
And he encircled him with pomegranates, with very many golden bells round about, to send forth a sound as he walked, to make their ringing heard in the temple as a reminder to the sons of his people.
The bells were likely included as part of high-priest Aaron's vestments for two reasons. First, they created a joyful noise to God, which is something man should undertake as described in Psalm 98:4. Secondly, bells were long thought to possess apotropaic powers, or the power to ward off evil spirits. The bells were seen as tools to be used to avert dangers to Aaron before he entered the Holiest of Holies.
It is sad that in many Roman Catholic parishes today the sanctus bells are no longer rung during Mass, an inexplicable break in a long-standing tradition. Bells also used to be anointed with sacred chrism when they were blessed.

St. Joan of Arc loved the sound of church bells, particularly the Angelus bells which rang three times a day. She also listened with joy to the bells which rang the Hours of the Divine Office, claiming that she heard her Voices most distinctly when the bells rang for Matins and Compline.
(Artwork by Edmund Dulac) Share


Enbrethiliel said...


My parish church has electronic bells programmed to ring in the prescribed pattern at noon and at sunset (for the Angelus, of course). I'm not sure why they had to replace the "old school" bells (a dearth of sacristans to do the ringing, perhaps?); but since the sound does carry all the way to my twenty-first floor bedroom several blocks from the church, I'm not complaining!

Stephanie A. Mann said...

Beautiful illustration! We attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite and a friend of ours climbs the stairs to ring the church bells during the consecration. The "smells and bells" do help one focus on the miracle of the Mass: the servers holding the priest's vestments, the servers ringing the bells and waving the thurifer; the sense that something marvelous is happening is palpable.

Ingrid Mida said...

I love listening to church bells and did not know their meaning. I also watched the movie Doubt last night and was wondering about the significance of the handbells during the church service. Thank you for enlightening me!

tubbs said...

There seems to be something very powerful about bells. Even the most rabid iconoclasts of the Reformation couldn't eliminate them completely.

I remember bearing my mother by her arm, as we followed Nannan's casket into the parish church. Mom's mother's funeral---there where Mom's milestones were made (sacraments, wedding, etc.)
"C'mon Mom, 'I will go unto the altar of God, the God who gave joy to my youth'"

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, dear friends, I am glad we share some of the same fascinations. It is amazing how little things like bells add to the beauty of the liturgy and of life in general.

Alexandra said...

I miss those sanctus bells at mass! I grew up in Europe during part of my childhood, so got to experience the sound of real church bells....some of my best memories.