The Washington Post Foreign Service has an interesting story today about the revival of church bells and bilos in the Russian Orthodox church. The other day we looked at the New York Times foreign desk’s treatment of the rise of piety in Islamic Egypt. That story used the prevalence of a mark of piety to explore larger cultural trends but also focused on the religious meaning.
The church bell story by Peter Finn was more straightforward observation than analysis. Reporting from Moscow, he explained how students are taught to perform rhythmically perfect ringing:
[Margarita] Krupka, a 25-year-old psychologist, stood before a head-high wooden frame from which nine bells and a bilo, a piece of flat metal, were hung. She held short ropes connected to the bell tongues and began to pull. First came one lonely bell, and then, as she deftly worked the ropes and a foot pedal, others joined to achieve a peak of controlled percussive sound.
Eyes shut, she gently rocked with the chimes. And as quietly as she had begun, she eased out of the short movement.
“I have a feeling my soul is singing,” said Krupka, who lives in a small town near Moscow.
And indeed Krupka’s chimes are not just a call to service but a binding link between the church and Heaven, according to Orthodox belief.
That last line — along with the headline claiming bell ringing was sacramental — weren’t explained in any way. There must be a theology about the chimes but it wasn’t explained in the piece. Instead the article focuses on how 800 students a year graduate from three month courses on the theory and practice of bell-ringing. The rhythmic tones have been missing from services because of a severe shortage of skilled ringers:
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, thousands of Orthodox churches have been built or refurbished, but only a small percentage have ringers, according to Viktor Sharikov, head of the Moscow Bell Center, which turns out about 800 graduates a year.
During communist times, he said, “we lost many things, and our task is to revive our traditions.”
Students such as Krupka must be Orthodox faithful and regular churchgoers, and they are selected by their local clergy to attend class. The three-month course involves two hours of theory and three hours of practice each week.
Bells were run during the Soviet period but only at famous monasteries. The most interesting part of the story was the comparison between Western and Eastern bells. In the West, chimes follow musical notes while for the Orthodox bell-ringing is purely rhythmic, according to the story:
Western bells swing as they ring; Orthodox bells remain stationary and their tongues, connected by short ropes to the hands of the ringer, do all the work. Unlike in the West, where a bell-ringer often stands at the bottom of a long rope that reaches into a belfry, a Russian bell-ringer usually stands right in front of the bells.
“For us the most important thing is the sense of rhythm,” Sharikov said. “If your ear is tuned, great, but it is not the most important thing. Our bell-ringer is not ringing music. He is ringing a rhythm, and sometimes it’s very difficult to catch any melody in it. This is our tradition.
“For Catholics, for instance, how well the bell corresponds with a note is very important,” he continued. “But what is most valuable for us is how rich the timbre is and how long the sound lasts.”
Again, I’m intrigued but left with many questions. Why are notes important to Catholics but not Orthodox? What is the symbolism of the Orthodox chimes?
This article, found on the site of an Orthodox bell seller, explains some of the theology and history behind the bells. That site also claims that when America’s first Russian Orthodox bishop — St. Innocent Veniaminov — came to Alaska, he brought with him a priest, a deacon, a subdeacon, a reader and a bell ringer.
I’ve long complained that political angles get more coverage by religion reporters than sacramental angles. Here we have a great story idea about the life of the church but it’s not explained enough.