From ancient byways to modern highways, glimpses of faith are everywhere...

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Church bells: For whom they toll

(Photo by Eleassar)
Church bells have been recently ringing out for the 26 victims of Newtown, Connecticut.  Such acoustic accompaniment of sacred and/or solemn occasions has been associated with the Christian Church for centuries.

Wikipedia reports that Paulinus of Nola (a contemporary of and indirect correspondent with Saint Augustine) first introduced formal
church bells in 400 C.E.  It took another 200 years for them to become officially sanctioned by Pope Sabinianus, who is credited by the great Italian historian Onofrio Panvinio with introducing "the custom of ringing bells at the canonical hours and the celebration of the Eucharist."  Church bells then especially caught on with the Irish missionaries (due to Celtic influences) of Northern Europe, and became prevalent throughout the European continent by the early Middle Ages.

In addition to signifying the hour or time, church bells have also been rung for special events such as weddings or funerals. Long before there was an MSN or a CNN, the pealing of bells informed citizens that an important gathering was about to occur.  Even within relatively recent times, church bells have played historic sociological roles.  Wikipedia explains that in Great Britain during World War II, "all church bells were silenced, to ring only to inform of an invasion by enemy troops."

The tolling (slow ringing) of a church bell to signify a death is also known as the "death knell" or the "passing bell."  Perhaps the most famous reference to this custom is from the poet John Donne.  He reminds us all that "no man is an island," then exhorts:  Therefore, send not to know  For whom the bell tolls,  It tolls for thee.


Copyright December 22, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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