One of the many pleasures I enjoy while sitting on my back porch (among now-struggling herbs and tomatoes, undoubtedly deceived by the last gasp of Indian Summer, which is supposed to come to a thundering close in the next day or so, according to the weather gurus) is the sound of church bells at various times of the day. And I've gotten pretty good at identifying, when conditions are right, which bells from which church are ringing at any given moment – the ones across the valley and the ones up the road being the most prominent. I might add that in this, perhaps the most unabashedly Catholic city in the country, all of the bells are rung (or broadcast, if electronic) by Catholic churches as far as I know, although I also have to add that the Episcopalians are no slouches in this matter, if one includes the change ringing at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. – a bit of tradition in a Gothic edifice more often given over to secular humanism. (This custom persists much to the delight of traditionalists and aesthetes alike, and undoubtedly much to the dismay of the neighbors on “Cathedral Hill”, although I have yet to hear of anyone dropping a dime and complaining to the D.C. Noise Ordinance Ministry.) Well, holiness is where you find it, even if it is inadvertent.
It happened again today (Oct. 14), under a cloudless sky with the temperature topping 80 degrees, on the centennial plus one day of the Dance of the Sun in Fatima, Portugal. And what is the message of the bells? Because, like the rain, the sound of the bells falls upon the just and the unjust alike. It is, among other things, a way of asserting not only the presence of believers but of belief itself -- the reality of the spiritual dimension of life – a dimension that is typically lost in the daily shuffle of politics, controversy, and the endless struggle between belief in God and belief in “ideas” -- the latter based on the premise that the observable world is all that there is, and all that is worthy of our concern. The message of the bells is: “No, wait! There is something more.” -- and as that master lyricist Jon Hendricks, who set words to countless Count Basie classics, inscribed on my ancient LP jacket a few years back, “Short Jazz Poem: 'Listen!'”
Another way of putting it is that it represents hope in the midst of chaos – and of uncertainty and despair. For the secular/materialist/humanist project which has been in full swing since at least as far back as the French Revolution, while it seems to have a goal – it is “progressive”, after all – is ultimately a recipe for frustration. The perfectibility of man and of society is a will-o'-the-wisp in a fallen world, and those who pursue it are on a fool's errand. And this is not to say that life cannot be made better in the material sense, through advances in medicine, nutrition, technology, and the whole panoply of things that constitute “progress”. But small, incremental advances are not enough for those whose entire world view is limited to the material, and who see man as, basically, a small, insignificant creature scuttling around between “the sky above and the mud below”, to borrow the title of a French documentary film from 1961. The premise seems to be that “progress” -- whatever that means – will free humankind from the fetters of mere earthly existence, and create a new man, and even a new species. In this is their hope, and in this they trust – and no skepticism or gainsaying will divert them from their course, which inevitably requires more control, more pigeonholing, and ultimately totalitarianism and tyranny. To save the human race from itself requires, basically, the abolition of humanity, starting with the human spirit, which is inexplicably attracted to what Freud called illusions – religion, faith, belief in the unseen.
And it's not even just about bells. Two years ago, on a trip to the Near East, I stayed a few days in Bethlehem, a holy city for Christians which is populated mainly by Muslims and under the watchful eye of Jews – thus, the uneasy dynamics among the “People of the Book”. At certain times of the day the Muslim call to prayer could be heard coming from a nearby minaret – amplified, no doubt, but nonetheless having an ancient and alien (to me) sound. It would start as a kind of low rumble, and I was uncertain, at first, what it was or where it was coming from. But then it became clear that it was, in a sense, the equivalent of church bells in the Christian world. It was, again, a kind of assertion; in a place of so much strife the spiritual was not only real, but paramount.
It is said that bells serve to drive the Devil away. But even he is capable of “cultural appropriation”, as witness the AC/DC classic “Hell's Bells”. So bells are a marker – for good or ill. They tell you that that there is more to “reality” than what simply meets the eye or tantalizes the senses... that something's up... that the day of reckoning is at hand (even if “at hand” in cosmic time still means many millennia in our time). But they can also be reassuring -- an intervention of sorts into our oft-dreary material existence. For without them, what would be left to get our attention? If I lived in a place where bells could not be heard I would feel that something had been lost – that a cosmic alarm clock had been silenced because humanity had been reprobated and given up to its fate.