That’s because church bells – not timepieces sans striking mechanisms or apps on digital devices – effectively (and efficiently) call us to come and go, awake and sleep, to accommodate time … with chimes whose claims remain diligent reminders in the foreground of our lives.
After a lifetime living near the deafening roar of airport jets taking off and landing, the blaring alarms of late night and early morning trains approaching crossings closed by mechanical arms, and the deeply mournful bass horns of ships passing in the night harbor, we sought a simpler life with sounds that relax and reassure, rather than jolt or jar.
Our favoured vision of an idyllic retirement was marked by two indelible images: meandering cobble stone streets for walks and wandering. And church bells nearby, easing our todays into tomorrows with yesterdays’ bygones … periodicity to their perennial peals.
Peals before swine?
The church bells at our village’s central plaza echo the pulse of the people, their ebb and flow, undertaking life’s daily tasks and rituals.
They summon morning strollers and diesel drivers; elderly men that sit on the church walls to jawbone about this and that; women who rise and shine to stop and shop for necessities at the local market; youngsters going to or coming from school.
Our bells ring four times right before each hour to alert us that the full hour count(down) is forthcoming. They toll once at 15 minutes after the hour, twice on the half hour, and thrice every 45 minutes past the hour. At sunrise and sunset, they peal serially: three times three. There’s a definite and distinct difference between the rapid, continuous, chiming of the ding-dongs calling people to Sunday mass … and the more urgent, chattering timber announcing vital news and “special events”–the baptism of a new life or a cadence for the dearly departed.
Minutes apart, earlier or later, bells of nearby churches momentarily repeat the offbeat chant.
Elsewhere, church bells play a major musical intermezzo at 7.30am and 6.30pm each day, calling the faithful to prayer. Some swear that their village bells are playing “Clementine,” an American folk tune, albeit with medieval disco vibes.
Each village has its culture and customs: In some spots, church bells toll differently, depending if the deceased is male or female. Or last longer if they’re chiming for someone from a village far away. In other places, only between sunrise and sunset can the bells announce a death.
It’s said that, originally, the bells rang to let workers in the fields know they had a few minutes to begin work, break for lunch, and finish … ringing a couple of minutes before the hour to let them know it was nearly time. And that there were different timbres so, when out on the land, you recognised which of the bells to listen for - yours.
The bells don’t ring between 10pm and 5am in many parishes now.
But here, they’ve become biorhythms, conditioning us to sleep through their nocturnal and diurnal tirades.
Based on a sermon by John Donne, For Whom the Bell Tolls is the title of Ernest Hemingway’s 1940 novel about the 1930s Spanish Civil War. The phrase refers to church bells that are rung when a person dies.
Donne says that, because we are all part of mankind, any person’s death is a loss to all: “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Hemingway suggests that we should not be curious as to for whom the bell is tolling—it’s tolling for us all!