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Theology of Bells

By Fr. Corey French

I spent the past couple of weeks in Wisconsin continuing my education at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. There are many reasons why I love to be up there—the natural beauty, the intellectual and spiritual community, the liturgical richness of the worship. The beautiful chapel of St. Mary the Virgin is perpetually redolent of incense; it is a place to “kneel where prayer has been valid,” as T.S. Eliot wrote of Little Gidding. But one of the most prominent features of “the House” (as it is affectionately known) is the thrice-daily ringing of the Angelus from the one-ton bell in the main quad. The bell rings to begin Mattins and Evensong. It also rings at 12:30 to signal the end of morning classes, at which point everyone stops, rises, and prays, even if a professor is in mid-sentence.

I mention this because the bell isn’t just a bell. It has a name — Michael. Michael bears an inscription from the Venite: “Come, let us worship and fall down / And kneel before the Lord our Maker.” It is fitting, then, that the voice of Michael has faithfully and daily called the House to worship since 1884. On September 29, the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, the House celebrates Michael’s name day by ringing him after Mass in a fit of joyful tintinnabulation, with everyone taking turns heaving the rope.

Hearing Michael’s voice three times a day caused me to give some thought to the use of bells in the Church. When we have watches and smartphones, surely the practical purpose of bells could be served, well, more practically. So, is there perhaps a deeper spiritual purpose to their use?

The earliest mention we have of bells in the Church comes in the sixth century when they were used to summon communities and monasteries to services. In the eighth century, Pope Stephen II erected a belfry with three bells (campanae) at St. Peter’s Basilica. By this time, bells had come to be an integral part of a church’s furnishings, and exterior towers for the purpose of holding larger bells began to be constructed. Also around this time an elaborate ceremony for the consecration of bells emerged.

This consecration rite is a fascinating key to the theology and use of church bells. The blessing has always been reserved to a bishop, which is typical for all blessings involving the most sacred of the church’s appurtenances—for example, chalices, patens, altar stones, and the church building itself. The rite begins with a series of seven psalms (generally of a penitential character) and the blessing of holy water. The bishop then asperses the bell while Psalms 145-150 (which speak of the praise of God) are chanted. He then prays that the bell will be blessed, recalling that the Lord “decreed through blessed Moses, your servant and lawgiver, that silver trumpets should be made and be sounded at the time of sacrifice, in order to remind the people by their clear tones to prepare for your worship and to assemble for its celebration.” 

The bishop then identifies the specific purposes for which the bell is to sound: 

‘Let the people's faith and piety wax stronger whenever they hear its melodious peals. At its sound let all evil spirits be driven afar; let thunder and lightning, hail and storm be banished; let the power of your hand put down the evil powers of the air, causing them to tremble at the sound of this bell, and to flee at the sight of the holy cross engraved thereon.’

Then, while Psalm 29 is chanted, the bishop anoints the bell with seven crosses on the outside using the Oil of the Sick and four crosses on the inside using the Sacred Chrism. The anointing of the crosses is intended to coincide with each invocation of “the Voice of the Lord” in the psalm. The bell is then blessed and consecrated in the Name of the Lord and in honor of a particular saint, and a thurible is placed directly under it so that the smoke fills the bell. There are several more prayers, a psalm, and the rite concludes with the reading of the story of Mary and Martha from Luke’s gospel (intended to show that the bell calls the whole Church—active and contemplative—to worship). The whole rite is a fairly involved affair!

As we can see, the naming of a church bell is not a custom unique to Nashotah House. Rather, it is an ancient catholic practice to dedicate a bell to a particular saint and to bestow a name upon it, likely due to a sense that each bell has its own unique “voice.” The custom of asperging and naming the bell led this rite to be termed (incorrectly, but by analogy) the “baptism of the bell.” The bell may not be “baptized,” but it is set apart from the rest of creation with a particular identity and for a particular purpose. When it rings, it speaks in some sense with “the Voice of the Lord,” and its pealing gives praise and worship to its Creator.

This rite of consecration identifies several purposes for the ringing of the bell: It is 1) to call the faithful to worship, 2) to awaken the “faith and piety” of the people of God, 3) to drive away storms, and 4) to banish the demonic powers of the air. A medieval Latin couplet echoes this: “Laudo Deum verum, plebem voco, congrego clerum, / Defunctos ploro, nimbum fugo, festa decoro” (“I praise the True God, I call the people, I gather the clergy, / I bewail the departed, I disperse the storm-clouds, I pay honor to feasts”). The mention of mourning the dead alludes to another typical use of the church bell: it is customarily tolled when a parishioner dies to call for prayers for the departed soul.

Calling together the people for prayer seems like an obvious enough use for the bell. We may ask, though, what is this business about banishing demons and dispersing storms? Demons have historically been associated with the “kingdom of the air.” In Ephesians, for instance, St. Paul refers to Satan as “the prince of the power of the air” (2:2). Likewise, in his treatise On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius writes of the Crucifixion: “For thus being lifted up He cleared the air of the malignity both of the devil and of demons of all kinds” (§25). Christians have long seen a connection between the fluid and unseen elemental forces of the air and the “principalities and powers” that work man’s woe. It is not unreasonable from this understanding to believe that the sound of a consecrated bell traveling through the air is a hateful and terrifying thing to those spiritual powers. 

Equally, the violent interruption of the normal orderliness of the atmosphere with stormy chaos has always posed a threat to human life and property. Believing that the sound of a bell can drive away storms might seem like a benighted relic of a premodern past that was ignorant of meteorological science. On this view, the bell merely serves as a kind of apotropaic talisman, but that misunderstands the theological connection at work. To ring the bell during a storm recognizes that we still inhabit a creation that “groaneth and travaileth in pain” (Rom. 8:22) and that still bears the wounds of man’s fall. The ringing of the bell during a storm is in essence a prayer that “the Voice of the Lord” will deliver us from chaos and disorder, just as that Voice called forth creation and order from the chaotic waters of the primordial void. 

All of which should remind us that we inhabit a sacramental world, a world in which created things mean and do more than we can say from a purely empirical or materialist viewpoint. In a sacramental world, the bell is no longer just an object of a particular metallic composition that, when struck, reverberates at a particular frequency and emits sound waves of a particular pitch and tone. Rather, it is a creature that has been drawn through the Church’s blessing into the sacramental economy of grace and that has been set apart to serve God’s purposes and herald His goodness, mercy, and love. To ring the bell is to reject modernity’s disenchantment, in which creation only ever points to itself and never to its Creator. To ring the bell confirms the judgment of Gerard Manley Hopkins that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” (“God’s Grandeur”). Ringing the bell proclaims that God lovingly governs His creation and brings us into his divine life through the simple material goods of bread, wine, water, salt, oil, palms, ashes, and the metal of a bell. Because we are incarnate beings, He comes to us through materiality of our incarnate life, chiefly in His glorious assumption of our frail human nature. The ringing of the bell proclaims that mystery. It truly speaks with “the Voice of the Lord.”

And in all of this, I have only been speaking of the main church bell. We, of course, have other bells in the church: the bell we ring at the beginning of Mass, the sanctus bells we ring throughout the liturgy. These bells, too, ring to awaken and arouse our piety, to signal to us that a mystery is unfolding to which we must attend. The bells ring during the Sanctus to inform us that we are no longer on earth but in heaven. The bells ring during the consecration to alert us to the central mystery of our Eucharistic life. Likewise, the bells fall silent during the Sacred Triduum to join with us in mourning our Lord, and they jubilantly ring out His triumph over death at the Easter Vigil.

Thus, bells in the Church are never merely a pleasant sonic ornament. They are practical, but they point to a richer and deeper reality in which we live and move and have our being. They call us back into the sacramental world that we can so easily forget. They demand attention in an age when it is a scarce resource. As Romano Guardini writes, “And the heavy bronze bells in the belfry tower, so beautifully molded, swing about their shaft and send out peal on peal in waves of good loud sound. High and quick, or full-toned and measured, or roaring deep and slow, they pour out a flood of sound that fills the air with news of the Kingdom” (Sacred Signs, 42). And so it is that over the past two weeks, I was glad to have renewed my friendship with Michael, the bell. He brings news of the Kingdom. He witnesses devoutly and robustly to God’s grandeur and goodness, even when my own prayers are flagging, weak, and distracted.

Fr. Corey French is Rector of St. Edward the Confessor Anglican Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.


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