I miss the bells. I miss walking through a cathedral town and hearing the bells, sometimes chiming the quarter hours, always chiming the hours, calling the faithful to prayer in the morning and evening.
These are real metal cast bells – such as our iconic Liberty Bell- not electric carillons such as were more common here in the United States (even those have increasingly gone quiet due to concerns from neighbors about “noise”). These are bells that are still often pulled by hand, ringing changes across the town and countryside. When we stayed at Gladstone’s Library in Wales, the room of one of our students was right across the church yard from the bell tower of the parish church. The bell ringers were practicing for a wedding and rang changes for several hours on end. Those tolling bells took a toll on our poor student’s mental health!
Most simply the bells mark the passing of time. Biblical Greek has two words for time: chronos, which is clock time, and kairos, which is time measured in opportunity or season. Medieval church bells measured both.
Before mechanical clocks were invented, time was measured by splitting day and night into segments depending on the progress of the sun across the sky. So daytime hours in the summer were much longer than daytime hours in the winter (The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer, p. 84). You think we have problems with daylight savings and standard time!
Medieval monks kept the hours of prayer, 8 times a day, roughly every three hours (as measured by the clock or “o’clock”). Bells would ring out at those times to remind the monks, and invite others, to prayer. The bells announced it was kairos time for prayer, an opportunity awaited those who would come to the church and join in.
In the 14th century more and more church bells were connected to mechanical clocks. Now everyone could keep track of the hours, even if they were too poor to own a clock. Chronos time began to take over kairos time.
As our daytime hours become much shorter this November, I remember our stays in Salisbury, looking out of our window across the Cathedral Close to the tallest church spire in England, and hearing the bells toll for Evensong. By 5:30, daylight was gone. Hearing the invitation from the bells, we would cross the grass and enter the hushed sanctuary, dimly lit and awaiting the prayers and songs of the faithful.
During this Thanksgiving season, I think of Paul’s words to the church at Colossae: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Col. 4.2). He goes on to say, “Make the most of every opportunity” (there’s that word, kairos).
May we all be grateful, watchful, alert for the opportunities, no matter what time of day, that we have to share love and gratitude with each other.
Too bad we don’t have more bells to remind us….