Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The Bells of Easter, Part 2: Bell-Song of the Risen Christ - Guest Article by Robert Keim

Onec again, we are grateful to Mr Robert Keim for sharing some of his writing with us, this time in a two part article on the subject of the liturgical use of bells. Part 1 of this article, which explores the paschal significance of bells in Old Testament liturgy, may be found here. Mr Keim is a secular brother of the London Oratory of St. Philip Neri, a linguist, and a literary scholar specializing in the poetic and dramatic literature of the English Renaissance. A longtime student of the arts and spirituality of sacred liturgy, he teaches university courses in rhetoric and is pursuing research into the devotional, scriptural, and liturgical culture of medieval England.

Though bells are present in Catholic worship throughout the annual cycle of feasts and fasts, the Church teaches us in her liturgy that they bear a special relationship to the Resurrection of Our Lord: it is only during the days immediately preceding Easter that altar bells are formally prohibited. The stark, jarring sound of their replacement—a wooden clapper known as a crotalus—is an unforgettable feature of the Roman rite’s Triduum ceremonies. It powerfully evokes the dismal, dissonant state of a world that has chosen Barabbas over the divine Musician, and it ensures that the return of sweet-sounding bells on Holy Saturday will be closely associated with Christ’s glorious return to life.

Bells as Heralds of the Resurrection
All four Gospels portray the announcement of the Resurrection as central to its occurrence: “go quickly, and tell his disciples, that he is risen from the dead” (Matthew 28, 7); “he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you” (Mark 16, 7); “they ... returned from the tomb, and told all these things to the eleven, and to all the rest” (Luke 24, 8–9); “Mary Magdalene cometh and telleth the disciples, I have seen the Lord” (John 20, 18). There is a sense that the Resurrection is so joyous and wondrous, so momentous, that it cannot be merely believed or experienced or contemplated: it must be proclaimed.
The holy women of Easter Sunday are depicted in this fourteenth-century Italian illumination (tempera, ink, and gold on parchment).
The early Church continued this tradition by giving much prominence to the Resurrection in her preaching. Indeed, the phrase “Christ is risen”—spoken and sung with overwhelming emphasis in the Byzantine Easter liturgy—is an emblem, even a distillation, of all Christian preaching. Bells are also an emblem of Christian preaching. Justin Martyr, for example, interpreted the golden bells of Aaron’s priestly robe as “a symbol of the twelve apostles,” through whose voices “all the earth has been filled with the glory and grace of God and of His Christ.” (Dialogue with Trypho, 42) Gregory the Great similarly wrote that the high priest had to enter the sanctuary “encompassed with bells; that is, he shall have about him the sounds of preaching.” (The Book of Pastoral Rule, 4.)
But bells are not merely symbols of preaching. Rather, they accomplish what they signify, for as Christendom grew, so too did the role of bells as a means of proclaiming the liturgical and sacramental presence of the eternal God. Bells announced the Mass, the Angelus, the hours of the Office, the elevation of the eucharistic Host, the singing of a sequence, the reading of the Gospel, and various events—births, deaths, weddings, etc.—in what we might call the liturgy of daily life.
This fourteenth-century bronze bell includes figures of four Apostles in relief and an abbreviated form of a Latin inscription meaning “Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ rules.”
The Christian community that gathered physically and spiritually around their church had many opportunities, day after day and year after year, to hear the sounds of Resurrection in the pleasing, elevating resonance of bell-song. The effect is strangely powerful. The soul somehow tunes itself to the voice of the bell, and naturally moves in response to its wordless preaching. I say this because I experienced it, when living in a village in Eastern Europe. I suspect that the peasants there, suffering from modernity and pragmatism like the rest of us, have grown somewhat uninterested in their church bells; they probably could not understand how much I love those bells, and long to hear them again.
A Romanian Orthodox church
Bells and the Resurrected Body
Further kinship between bells and Easter lies in the nature of the sound that bells produce. Here we are speaking primarily of “campaniform” or “musical” bells, that is, the refined “bell-shaped” bells that are now iconic elements of church architecture. Bell-founders in the late Middle Ages developed this form through their attempts to make bells more pleasing to the ear and more predictable in pitch.
A late-sixteenth-century Italian example of a campaniform bell.
Musical bells have various characteristics that create an intimate relation with paschal theology. I’ll briefly discuss their unique clarity, their method of use, their extraordinary range, and their special tonal quality. We’ll see that bell-song evokes the four properties of the resurrected body, as taught by St. Thomas: brightness, impassibility, agility, and subtlety.
Brightness: This attribute refers to visible light, but the sound of bells is an acoustic equivalent to the shining splendor of a glorified body. The adjective “bright,” when applied to sound, means “clear and vibrant.” A well-tuned bell produces multiple notes in a harmonic series, and we naturally perceive the resulting sound as bright, clear, and pure. Also, bells are unusual in that one of their natural intervals is a minor third. This adds a plaintive and distinctively spiritual quality to bell-song.
Impassibility: Bells produce exceptionally beautiful sound in response to brute violence. It is as though they are immune to physical harm: we strike the bell, and it sings.
Agility: Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in the eighth century, informs us that the death of Abbess Hilda was communicated by means of a bell to a certain Sister Begu who was, at the time, thirteen miles away. The occurrence was probably understood as a miracle, but in any case, it is an early indication of a phenomenon that is known even to many modern people, despite catastrophic levels of noise pollution: bells have a singular ability to overcome long distances. It is almost as though the sound of a bell, like Our Lord’s glorified Body, moves freely and effortlessly through physical space. Indeed, the tolling of a great bell is almost a separate and mysterious species of sound; John Senior wrote that “the bell is the strike of silence,” in which “noise is hollowed out.”
Subtlety: A resurrected body is “perfectly within the soul’s dominion,” as St. Thomas says, and the action of a bell is fully within the dominion of its (physical) form. No precision or special technique is required when playing a bell. A crude striking apparatus can be used, and the bell naturally finds the harmonic tonalities determined by its form.
The gleaming, glorified body of Christ in a fourteenth-century Anastasis icon (tempera on wood with gilding).
The Chimes of Heaven and Earth
Bells were integral to the rhythmic, harmonious, poetic life that was made possible by the Resurrection of Our Lord, and which was continually nourished by the liturgical ceremonies of His Church. This way of life was all but extinguished in the West when Christina Rossetti, an Anglo-Catholic poet of the Victorian era, wrote a short poem that is worthy of a few moments’ contemplation.
Earth has a clear call of daily bells,
A rapture where the anthems are,
A chancel-vault of gloom and star,
A thunder when the organ swells:
Alas, man’s daily life—what else?—
Is out of tune with daily bells.
While Paradise accords the chimes
Of Earth and Heaven: its patient pause
Is rest fulfilling music’s laws.
Saints sit and gaze, where oftentimes
Precursive flush of morning climbs
And air vibrates with coming chimes.

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