In Jean-François Millet’s The Angelus, two peasants stop digging potatoes to pray when the bells in the distance church tower ring.
I suppose one could say that church bells are a thing of the past. Of course, there are places where churches still have bells, and those bells still ring. They might ring at the beginning or during services (during the Lord’s Prayer, for example). They might even still ring to announce a member’s death or at certain times of the day. But the fact is that most of us live, work, and travel out of earshot of church bells.
I’ve been reading Martin Chemnitz’ 1569 Church Order for Braunsweig-Wolfenbüttel. In it, he has instructions of all kinds for church life in his principality. Today I came across his instructions regarding the ringing of bells, right after a long list of collects (prayers).
Under the papacy, a special ringing of the bell was observed morning, noon, and evening by which the people were admonished to pray to the Virgin Mary. But because the most blessed Virgin Mary does not desire the honor due God alone, and because it is also contrary to God’s Word, the people are to be instructed in this regard. The ringing of the bell in and of itself can be retained, as is also the case in the neighboring Reformation churches, to indicate to the people morning, noon, and evening. Moreover, the people are thereby reminded and exhorted to pray morning, noon, and evening for common peace and good government—in so doing prayer is made at the same time for the authorities and against all enemies of common, Christian peace. For this reason, in the neighboring Reformation churches, it has been very appropriately referred to as ringing the prayer bell or the “peace bell.” And it is Christian, good, and useful for the common people to be accustomed to it, so that they do not forget such necessary prayer. But because prayer is often forgotten, the peal of the bell can remind them to pray such things, whenever they hear the peace bell ringing, whether at home, in the garden, on the road, or in the field. At that time also, the children in the house may be encouraged to sing: Erhalt uns Herr bey deinem Wort, etc.; likewise, Verleihe uns Frieden gnediglich. Such prayer is of very great necessity in these latter and perilous days.
Wouldn’t you say that prayer for the “common peace and good government” is still “of very great necessity”? And I’m pretty sure that forgetting to pray is no less a problem today than in 1569.
But if church bells are out—or perhaps drowned out by our world’s noise—is there anything that could fill the function of church bells to call us to pray? What could remind us, whether we are at home, at work, or in the car? Perhaps something that we carry with us practically everywhere.
Perhaps you could consider setting an alarm on your phone in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. You could even use the sound of bells to remind you to pray.
Verdin Bells has a few church bell sounds available for download on their web site. There is one called the Angelus (that’s the name of the papist bell-ringing Chemnitz refers to above) and one that is just a single swinging bell. Here are converted files for iPhone ringtones (Peace Bell / Single Bell).
Chemnitz encourages prayers for peace at these times. I think I might like to modify that just slightly with an area of focus for each hour—in the morning, for peace in the home and family; at noon (the hour of Jesus’ death), for peace in the Church; and in the evening, peace in the government and civil sphere. In another place I saw that some have used the morning hour to meditate on the Resurrection, the noonday to contemplate the Crucifixion, and the evening hour to reflect on the Incarnation.
The hymns Chemnitz suggests are also worth considering. Most Lutherans are familiar with “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” (CW 203). “Grant Peace, We Pray, in Mercy Lord” (CW 522) is worth knowing better. These two hymns always seem to be paired together. In J.S. Bach’s Cantata on “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast” the closing chorale is “Grant Peace, We Pray.” I love how it concludes:
Grant to our princes and all those in authority
peace and good government
so that we, among them
may lead a calm and peaceful life
in all godliness and honesty.