December 5, 2020

Merton Musings: On Church Bells

Geth Tower SmallNote from CM: This weekend my hours will be marked by church bells. They ring from the tower of Gethsemani Abbey, calling the countryside to pause, look up, and acknowledge that redemption has drawn nigh. The first church I served had a small foyer inside the entry door where one could reach up and pull a rope to ring the bell. We rang it on Sunday mornings to call our little village to remember that God is in our midst and all are welcome at his table. As Thomas Merton reminds us, the bells are God’s watchmen, announcing Christ’s reign, which is available to all people, for the renewal of all creation.

* * *

Bells are meant to remind us that God alone is good, that we belong to Him, that we are not living for this world.

They break in upon our cares in order to remind us that all things pass away and that our preoccupations are not important.

They speak to us of our freedom, which responsibilities and transient cares make us forget.

They are the voice of our alliance with the God of heaven.

They tell us that we are His true temple. They call us to peace with Him within ourselves.

The Gospel of Mary and Martha is read at the end of the Blessing of a Church Bell in order to remind us of all these things.

The bells say: business does not matter. Rest in God and rejoice, for this world is only the figure and the promise of a world to come, and only those who are detached from transient things can possess the substance of an eternal promise.

The bells say: we have spoken for centuries from the towers of great Churches. We have spoken to the saints, your fathers, in their land. We called them, as we call you, to sanctity. What is the word with which we called them?

We did not merely say, “Be good, come to Church.” We did not merely say “Keep the commandments” but above all, “Christ is risen, Christ is risen!” And we said, “Come with us, God is good, salvation is not hard, His love has made it easy!” And this, our message, has always been for everyone, for those who came and for those who did not come, for our song is as perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect and we pour our charity out upon all.

– from Thoughts In Solitude
by Thomas Merton


  1. True.

    But simultaneously, and paradoxically, this all-too-human world, too, with all its cares and concerns, belongs to God. And as we may find him in those moments of withdrawal and retreat, so we may find him in the midst of the secular world, with all its busyness and projects, in its successes and failures, in its limitations and finitude, its poverty and abundance. For as he lives in the heart of the cloister, no less does he live in the heart of the marketplace, and if the bells call us for a moment or day or month or year or lifetime apart from the crush of worldly concerns, they also call us back into the heart of this human world, where the Kingdom of God shall surely make its abode.

    • Christiane says

      To me, your comment seems to resonate deeply with a personal experience (an epiphany) Merton once described:

      ” From Thomas Merton’s private journal, March 19, 1958:

      “Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream — the dream of separateness, of the “special” vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of men or put me is a special category except artificially, juridically. I am still a member of the human race — and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!

      Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race, like all the rest of them. I have the immense joy of being a man! As if the sorrows of our condition could really matter, once we begin to realize who and what we are — as if we could ever begin to realize it on earth. . . . “

      • Yes, I’m familiar with that from “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.” A wonderful book, a wonderful quote. My favorite Merton are “Conjectures,” “The Asian Journals,” and “A Vow of Conversation,” though the last two were posthumous.

  2. Dan Crawford says

    Fifty years ago in Pittsburgh, you could hear church bells ringing on Sundays from 6 AM to mid-afternoon up and down the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio River valleys. Those days are gone now – many of the churches are shuttered, replaced by gymno-barn structures with no bells, only garish electric scoreboard signs to tell people to come to church. The continue “business as usual”.

    Thanks, Fr. Louis, for the reminder.
    “The bells say: business does not matter. Rest in God and rejoice, for this world is only the figure and the promise of a world to come, and only those who are detached from transient things can possess the substance of an eternal promise.”

    • Fifty years ago in Pittsburgh, you could hear church bells ringing on Sundays …

      Yes you could Mr. Crawford (and also smell the sulphur from the steel mills). In my little neck of Pittsburgh we still have a few Catholic churches that have the real deal and they still ring… very cool to watch as well as listen to. In my Church we had the electronic kind with speakers on the roof. I say ‘had’ because they have not rung (played) in about 10 years. I am in the process of resurrecting these and the first step is to test the outdoor horn speakers and determine if they are in working order…

      The parish priest and I were chuckling on how we could do that and settled on the beginning Bell sounds from AC/DC Hells Bells. We also thought of the piano portion of the theme from the Exorcist, or the Priest could, without warning, just boom an early morning message to the community… something like Hello… this is God calling….

  3. David Cornwell says

    Many of my first memories of church of those of the bells calling us to worship. In early elementary school, the village church was about four blocks from home, the typical white frame building with a tower for the bell. It would always ring, once before all the Sunday services started, then again immediately before worship. This was the Day when we put aside everything else to turn our attention toward God. We dressed up, walked to church, attended Sunday School, and stayed for worship services. And it was good.

    Later we moved to a house in the country, very remote from previous. The house was old and creaky. Down the road was an old country church. And at night, sometimes the church bells would ring. I was never sure of the reason, maybe the wind? But I was nine years age, in the middle of the night, and I always wondered if the bells were announcing the return of Jesus to this earth.

    • “I always wondered if the bells were announcing the return of Jesus to this earth.”

      Perhaps they were, David. It seems to me entirely plausible that Jesus is returning as we speak, and may well have been since you were nine years old. Seems more plausible to me than him floating down out of the sky dressed in a bed sheet like a spent party balloon.

    • David Cornwell says

      Excuse the grammar errors above. It was written in a hurry before I left for church this morning.

  4. Our church rings bells before each mass. I really like them — the unashamed proclamation of Listen! Come! Worship the Lord!

  5. As I child I heard neighborhood church bells play hymns in the afternoon. I still remember “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” ringing out of that church’s steeple — a message of hope and joy, even though I didn’t know the words at the time.

  6. When I was really young, my family attended a Baptist church in upper Wisconsin. Old building, had been around for 75-80 years by that point. The church had bells attached to a small keyboard downstairs behind the organ. I remember hearing them ring the first few times we visited (that I can remember), but then they stopped as either the organist passed or moved on. But one day, I got to play them, and that was amazing.

  7. Our Episcopal church rings the bells before every service. The usher goes into the entryway (narthex?) and pulls on a long rope. The Methodist Church downtown plays a tune on the (probably computerized) bells every three hours. I love the sound of church bells. Once when I was in Scotland, I heard “changes” rung at a church nearby. Not tuneful, but memorable.

    Remember in Orwell’s cheerful novel, 1984, the central figure, George Winston, recalls the old rhyme about the London bells and wonders what they would have sounded like.

    Oranges and lemons
    Say the bells of Saint Clemens
    You owe me five farthings
    Say the bells of Saint Martins
    When will you pay me
    Say the bells of Old Bailey
    When I grow rich
    Say the bells of Shoreditch
    Pray when will that be
    Say the bells of Stepney
    I’m sure I don’t know
    Says the great bell of Bow.

    • Change ringing is the background setting for Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mystery “The Nine Tailors”.

      I can remember many years ago standing outside my church building just before 11:00 A.M. on Sunday morning in a small city in central Florida and hearing bells from five different churches all ringing. I thought it was really neat.

    • H. Lee, that may have been one of the more cheerful parts of the novel.

      But it’s more dismal than Winston wondering what the nursery rhyme sounded like. He couldn’t even remember the words beyond “Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clemens.” That’s how lost the people were to their own history and culture. The Party official O’Brien filled in the rest of the verses for Winston, revealing that the privileged at least still had some grasp (or control) of history.

      Working theme of the novel: “He who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past.”

      Let the bells ring.

  8. Dana Ames says

    When Orthodox Church bells are blessed, each one is anointed and gets a “Christian name” and a patron saint, because each one has a voice of its own.


  9. When I was little, our church was downtown. My mom would play the carillon before starting the prelude for each service. When we built a new church on the outer edge of town, they put in an automatic carillon that would play at predetermined times. But at some point, some neighbors complained, so they stopped using it and let it fall into disrepair. I’ve always loved hearing the sound of bells and can’t imagine why people would object to hearing them, at least on Sundays.

  10. Christiane says

    I remember being very moved when I heard that on the day the beloved Mormon President Gordon B. Hinckley passed away at 97, the great bell of the Cathedral of the Madeleine rang once per hour out of respect. The Catholic Cathedral is only a few blocks from Temple Square in Salt Lake City, and that mark of respect was valued by the Mormon people in their grief.

    A church bell can have a voice of its own sometimes. Solidarity with a grieving neighbor is a message it can send out and that helps to build community and respect among people of faith in a city. The two faiths have worked with each other to help care for the needy in Salt Lake City, in an exercise of ecumenical compassion for suffering that has built up a sincere friendship over many years.

    That great Cathedral bell intoned and confirmed that friendship on that very sad day in Salt Lake City.

  11. In our town the churches with bells take turns, the Catholic church rings at 8am every day for Mass, another plays at 9:30am and so on, each in its particular turn through the day, with the exception that the Catholic church also keeps the old custom of ringing the bells for every (funeral) Mass of Christian Burial (whatever time of day it might be celebrated), in keeping with the saying, an expression from a sermon by John Donne. Donne says that because we are all part of mankind, any person’s death is a loss to all of us: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”