When the church bells stop ringing


I couldn’t understand what my two-year-old grandson, Eli, was saying. We were at our church’s playground, and as I was pushing him on the swing, he was asking me something I couldn’t quite make out.

Finally, I got it.

His Kentucky boy accent had his word for “bells” sounding like bales, as in bales of hay. He wanted to know about the “church bells,” not from our church but from St. Augustine Catholic Church, our neighbor on the other side of the block, whose church bells had just rung.

“They ring every 15 minutes,” I told him and immediately knew I was talking over his head.

“Don’t you like the way they sound?”

He nodded in agreement.

“I wanna see ‘em,” he said.

And so we trekked across the parking lot and church lawn to see the Catholic bells.

Along the way, I thought of how helpful the fifteen minute ringing intervals were to me that day, since my cell phone had died, and I had no wristwatch.

Way back when, in the days before cell phones or wristwatches, church bells helped people order their day. Church bells were originally a means for calling people to prayer and worship. Some of the early church missionaries would call people to worship by ringing hand bells. In 400 AD, Paulinus, the Bishop of Nola, introduced the use of bells as a means of calling monks to prayer. In the seventh century, Pope Sabinianus officially approved the use of church bells to call people to Mass. By the ninth century, most European churches were using church bells.

Don’t worry, I didn’t share that bit of history with Eli. But I did take him inside the church and show him the old bell rope.

Whenever I see a church bell rope I think of the late Corrie ten Boom, Holocaust survivor. She likened forgiveness to pulling the church bell rope. To get the bell ringing, you have to tug on it awhile. As long as you keep pulling, the bell keeps ringing. “Forgiveness is simply letting go of the rope,” ten Boom said. “It’s just that simple.”

But letting go of the rope doesn’t mean the bell immediately stops ringing. It has momentum and will continue to ring for a while. Similarly, you will likely have lingering feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness even when you have chosen to forgive. If you wait until you feel like it, you’ll probably never forgive.

“If you keep your hands off the rope, the bell will slow and eventually stop,” said ten Boom, whose sister and father died in the Holocaust.

As I pointed to the rope, I thought of how holding on to the rope can be enjoyable, even comforting, for as long as we hang on to the rope of unforgivness, we nurse our wounds and even wear them as a badge.

But doing that can be deadly. An unforgiving spirit contaminates other emotions, and so we move from grudges, to hatred, to retaliation.

Letting go of the rope is not easy. But it’s liberating.

It can happen, by the grace of God.

And it’s necessary if we are to respond fully, authentically to the church bells in our life and their call for us to worship.

Standing outside St. Augustine on our way back to our church, the bells ring.

Eli squints up at them in childlike wonder, for there is something powerful in hearing those bells resound.

And knowing ten Boom’s story, something even more amazing when they stop.

Reach David B Whitlock at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com

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