Reminiscent of those medieval European villages, my home village, Mission Hills, in Omaha, Nebraska has as its center a Catholic Church, St. Stephen the Martyr, and bell towers guarding each of the “village gates.”
While these bell towers do have bells, they have no clappers. Nevertheless, following the early winter morning when Cecily and I were engaged, on that snowy night driving to dinner, our first stop was at those bells to give them a good ring . No greater contrast has there been between the sonorous spirit and the sonorous sound of the ringing of a bell.
Months later, the hour before our wedding during our blind exchange of gifts, Cecily gave me a crucifix and I gave her a poem I wrote and a bell engraved with our names. The crucifix hangs in our bedroom now, and the bell, which we ring every night for its blessing, rests on our family altar.
Here are the verses I delivered to Cecily with the bell on that day:
Bells are rung when battles won,
And you and I may boast
That we are victors, one and one,
By grace of God we toast!
Home is made our palisade,
Love, our loaves and fish.
We are bade each other’s aid,
To want each other’s wish.
Bells do ring when angels sing,
For us the choir’s chorus
Offers rings that angels bring
Brought from Heaven’s fortress.
Hearts in harmony are set,
The rings do wear well,
Woven round our fingers blest,
As sound rims on two bells.
Bells resound when kings are crowned
With queens at coronation.
And we, my dear, now here avowed
Bare chimes of consecration.
The bells stay well tuned with other poems as well, for example, this one written on St. Valentine’s Day during the first year of our marriage:
From the beginning,
Bells would ring
Whenever two did kiss.
And when bells did ring
Angels would sing
To resound the earthly bliss.
The sacred use of bells in the liturgy and life of the church naturally follows from the logic of romance. The wedding bells and dinner bells of the domestic church become the church bells and altar bells of the parish church, the diverse uses of which were once inscribed on such bells with a verse or two:
Laudo Deum verum plebem voco congrego clerum
Defunctos ploro, nimbum fugo, festa decoro.
[I praise the true God, I call the people, I assemble the clergy;
I bewail the dead, I dispense storm clouds, I do honor to feasts.]
These bells distribute grace and proclaim God’s love to all who hear them by virtue of their sacramental nature and their emulation of the voice of God. Every creature, even Christ’s garment (Luke 8:44), St. Paul’s handkerchief (Acts 19:12), St. Peter’s shadow (Acts 5:15), water, spit, dirt, fire, breath, oil, and the ringing sound of a bell may disseminate God’s grace, since Christ’s incarnation permeates all of creation.
This Trinity Sunday was the Solemn Blessing and Consecration of the St. Barnabas Bell at St. Barnabas Church (A Roman Catholic, Anglican Use Community of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter) in Omaha. The bell, given the name Leo after St. Leo the Great, was blessed by The Most Rev’d Elden F. Curtiss, Archbishop Emeritus of Omaha (who incidentally, Confirmed me in the faith, making Leo and I practically brothers).
Following the chanting of Psalms, the Archbishop exorcised and blessed the salt and water and blessed the bell therewith in a ritual reminiscent of baptism. Then more Psalms were chanted. He then signed the bell, first with the Oil of the Sick, then with the Sacred Chrism, saying:
May this bell, O Lord, be sanctified and consecrated.
In the Name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit.
In honor of St. Leo, peace be with thee.
After more Psalms were chanted, the Gospel account of Christ’s visit to Martha and Mary was read:
Now it came to pass as they went, that he entered into a certain town: and a certain woman named Martha, received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sitting also at the Lord’s feet, heard his word. But Martha was busy about much serving. Who stood and said: Lord, hast thou no care that my sister hath left me alone to serve? speak to her therefore, that she help me. And the Lord answering, said to her: Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:38-42)
This Gospel reveals, inter alia, the purpose of the Angelus bell, rung at 6:00 a.m., noon, and 6:00 p.m. As the painting, “The Angelus,” depicts, a husband and wife stop in the field to pray upon hearing the Angelus bell of the church in the background. While the Marthian duties of marriage and family life, although filled with the rich tonalities of domestic bells, necessitate tending to things of ordinary life (1 Corinthians 7:33-35), church bells invite all to “hear his word,” to stop for a moment and experience the Marian life of those clergy and religious who have chosen the best part (Matthew 19:10-12).