The Bells

RUSSIA HARVARD BELLSI can never begin describing the layers upon layers of Orthodox Tradition when I am writing or speaking with others. This is true, at the very least, because the Tradition is itself also the “life” of the Church (in Orthodox understanding). A life – particularly a life that is Divine, cannot be described. It can only be experienced. Description, at best, only offers a small glimpse.

One of the elements of Orthodox life that is lost to those outside is the rich role of music in the Church. Many who come to Orthodoxy in the West are hesitant when the find the various musical presentations of Orthodoxy to be so, well, foreign. As my years in faith add up, however, music begins to take on new meanings. I feel as though I’ve largely forgotten the hymns of my former Church – regardless of their beauty. In Orthodox practice music, the various melodies employed, etc., have their own associations, even multiple associations, which like icons and other elements of the services, bring various theological events, insights and moments into one another’s presence and thus produce a commentary. This is particularly rich during Holy Week and Pascha (though in American practice there remain many musical melodies known only by name and not by sound – the Tradition is only slowly being set in place).

It is thus hard to describe what is happening when these various layers of the Tradition – liturgical, ritual, musical, textual, iconographic, etc. – all begin to work together in the course of the Church year. The experience of the Church’s life reveals a texture that can be found in few if any other settings (I cannot think of any). I am particularly struck by the fact that what I know of this element of the Orthodox life is, in fact, at a rather minimal level. I have had conversations with those for whom these many layers are known as familiar territory. I can think especially of some conversations I have had, or been present at, with Fr. Paul Lazor, retired from the faculty of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. His conversations alone carry a wealth of Tradition.

Another layer of Orthodox life which is only beginning to be present in America, at the same time it is being restored to Russia, is the place of Bells. In a recent article in the New Yorker the following statement on the understanding of Church bells serves as an example. Bells are not a musical instrument but

“‘…an icon of the voice of God.’ A Russian bell, he said, must sound rich, deep, sonorous, and clear, for how can the voice of God be otherwise? It must be loud, because God is omnipotent. Above all, Russian bells must never be tuned to either a major or minor chord. ‘The voice of a bell is understood as just that,’ he said.  ‘Not a note, not a chord, but a voice.’”

Western bell-ringing is famous either for playing music (as is done with Carillons) or in playing mathematical schemes (as in change-ringing). Russian bell-ringing has its own rules with various patterns being required at various occasions. But beneath all of its patterns is the icon of the voice of God.

The complexity that these many things bring to Church life is, like the voice of the bell, an icon of the life of God as well as the mystery of our participation in His life. Conversations I had ten years ago about music in the Orthodox Church (“Would there ever be a place for Western hymns in Orthodoxy?”) now seem trite – devoid of understanding the life into which I was entering. I am a neophyte, only now awakening to the Life that has been given me. But knowing something, anything, of that Life is an invitation to follow the voice of God.

The source of the quote on the bells comes from a marvelous Orthodox blog by Fr. Milovan Katanic, a Serbian Orthodox priest, whose comments have graced articles here at Glory to God for All Things. I have added his website, Again and Again, to the blogroll, its absence being an oversight on my part for which I can only beg forgiveness. It is always a very good read.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



27 responses to “The Bells”

  1. theo1973 Avatar

    I am Greek, but i regularly attend a local Russian church in the suburb of Brunswick which is in Melbourne, Australia. Though i do not understand church Slavonic, i am always taken by the moment The Funeral of Our Lord commences during the divine liturgy in the Russian church. The choir wonderfully capture the change in mood.

    Father, during some services the deacon reads out a long list of names of the Saints of the Orthodox Church. He does it in Russian, so i’m not sure who the saints are but i know he mentions St Theofan the Recluse and St Seraphim of Sarov. He reads out line after line, raising his voice with after every pause and singing each subsequent line in a more awe inspired and powerful way. It’s almost spooky. JUst wondering, if you know why this is done?

    In terms of the Bells, the parish in Brunswick has only recently been opened, and the Fathers at the church have told me they have hesitated using the bells because they are new to the neighbourhood. Father Nick is kind of cute like that. He doesn’t want to to wake anyone.

    Hristos Anesti

  2. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    I thank you again, Father, for directing me to the Hermitage of the Holy Cross monastery in Wayne, West Virginia.

    The bells they rang there were, truly, quite other-wordly.

  3. Fr. Milovan Katanic Avatar

    Thanks for the plug Father Stephen. Christ is Risen!

  4. Collator Avatar

    I’ve had the blessing to hear traditional bell-ringing during vigils on Mt. Athos, and at Christ the Savior OCA parish in Chicago, where Vladyka Job taught some of the readers using propane tanks until real bells were installed recently. Unfortunately even in the Old World (I’m thinking of Greece) most churches have mechanized/electric bells, which repeat the same monotonous sequence each time with the flip of a switch. I hope and pray that we can recover the traditional role of bells in parishes on both sides of the Atlantic.

  5. zoe Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen for this post. I have been thinking as to how most of the Evangelical church that I know do not use bells anymore.

    Now I understand why the ringing of the bell at U. T. Campus when the clock strikes 12 had great appeal to me; it brought such feeling of longings that I did not understand then. The ringing of the bell was a summon for me to come home. Come home to God. Attending the Divine Liturgy now reminds me again of that feeling upon hearing the bell in the Church; only now, I know that the feeling was due to my subconscious yearning for God. Praise God for your blog and for continuing to illumine us with the rich Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Church.

    Christ is risen! (Buhay na si Kristo!)

  6. Fr. Milovan Katanic Avatar

    Also from that New Yorker article, and related to Zoe’s comment, regarding the mysteriously important position of bells in Russian culture and history:

    “Their tolling…has been known to bring miserly or hard-hearted people to repentance, and to dissuade would-be murderers and suicides. In ‘Crime and Punishment’, Raskolnikov falls into a guilt-induced fever, hearing the ringing of the Sunday church bells; he gives himself away by returning to the scene of the crime…..In ‘War and Peace’, the Kremlin’s bells ring during Napoleon’s invasion, disquieting the Grande Armée…Bells exercise a profound power over humankind….”

  7. zoe Avatar

    Yes, thank you again Fr. Milovan and Fr. Stephen for such enlightenment. Such mystery has to come from God.

    God bless you both.

  8. katia Avatar

    “… Is it not a mouth that speaks when the bell tells us of each passing hour, and reminds us of the passage of time and of eternity when there should be time no longer (Rev. 10:6).

    Announcing the glory of the name of Christ, day and night, from the heights of a church of God, the sound of bells reminds us of the words of the Lord, the Pantocrator, spoken through the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah, “I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night” (Is. 62:6). It is not by chance that pagans, when they heard the sound of bells, often said, “that is the voice of the Christian God.”

    The sound of one church bell is something exalted and solemn, and if there are several bells in harmony with each other, then a more magnificent sonority is sounded. A moving peal of bells acts upon our inner feelings and awakens our souls from spiritual slumber. What grieved, despondent, and often irritating tones are evoked by church bells in the soul of an evil and impious apostate. The feelings of discomfort and weariness of soul are evoked by the sound of the bell in the soul of a perpetual sinner. But in the soul of the faithful, who seek peace with God the Lord, the church bell awakens a bright, joyous, and serene disposition. Thus a person can define the state of his soul by means of the sound of bells…”

    The Divine


  9. Damaris Avatar

    When I was at an Anglican school in South Africa, the bells rang the Angelus every day at noon, and everyone stopped for a minute and prayed. I loved that. It WAS like the voice of God, reminding us of Himself in the middle of a busy day.

  10. sean Avatar

    One thinks of the great Tarkovsky film “Andrey Rublev” in which a great drama surrounds the casting of a massive bell.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    The article helps explain why the casting of a bell would seem so important. I own the Tarkovsky film and enjoy it from time to time.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    I saw that statement – it’s so richly revealing. It also points out the fullness of Orthodoxy that is found in Dostoevsky’s work that is often missed by the reader because it is such a integral part of the fabric of the novel. Those of us who come to Orthodoxy from other cultures have massive amounts to digest. The witness to the faith and the culture of Orthodoxy are vital to mission work in the West. (Keep writing, Fr. Milovan!)

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have to add that the article on the Bells has been one of the richest additions to my heart in recent months. Many things came together for me with this article for which I am deeply grateful.

  14. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! I have the CD “Resurrection” by Archangel Voices. In the middle of the Paschal processional hymn, “Thy Resurrection, O Christ . . .” the bells are rung and also at the very end. When I hear them, there is a urgent inner tug to full attention and an unspeakable joy that wells up from deep inside hearing these on top of the prayerful words of this hymn. My nine year old daughter loves to hear them, too, and asks nearly every time we go by a church, “Does that church have bells?”

  15. Meskerem Avatar

    Older churches and monasteries in Ethiopia use stone bells.
    Here is a link for a picture and description on the sound. This one is in Lalibela churches. People who have tried it could not believe the sound it makes just like from a metal.

  16. Phil Avatar

    Amen to everything in this post, Father. Western hymns were one of the things I was sure I would miss most upon entering Orthodoxy. As it turns out, I never think of them at all. On the other hand, I frequently think of various hymns (and, of course, their words) from the services throughout the week in a way I never did as a Protestant. I’m certain it isn’t because the tune is catchy, as would be the case for a Western hymn; it is because of something on a deeper level.

    It’s a constant reminder of God and the Faith that proclaims Him.

  17. Aaron Avatar

    This post and subsequent comments bring to mind George MacDonald’s “The Wow O’Riven”, a short story found here:

    Well worth the read.

  18. […] The Bells « Glory to God for All Things […]

  19. zoe Avatar


    Thanks for sharing the website for this story. I read it and I liked it. If I understand the Orthodox Teachings correctly, the “coming home” to God is also “now”. “Today is the day of salvation.”

    Christ is risen!

  20. Discipulus Avatar

    “I am a neophyte, only now awakening to the Life that has been given me. But knowing something, anything, of that Life is an invitation to follow the voice of God.”

    Father Stephen,

    On Lazrus Sunday my family and I were Chrismated into the Orthodox Church. This was the end of many years of searching on my part. Part of that search involved stumbling upon the blog Pontifications, and then reading many of you’re entries there. That of course led me to this blog. I am so grateful for you’re ministry.

    But, now that I am Orthodox, I find that the journey is just starting. I am truly a neophyte. There is so much that I don’t know. I can also say that, “I am an ignorant man.”

    I am grateful that God is kind, that his Church is patient, that the Holy Spirit leads us into all Truth.

  21. Marcus Avatar

    Thanks for the post Father!

    Could someone explain to me the reasons behind our Chanting most (if not all) of the Liturgy? I know this is very important, but the only commentary I’ve heard on it was a disgruntlement at some priests not chanting the Gospel. Something along the lines of “The Gospel is the foundation of the Universe and should be read as such”. Now, that statement is just loaded with interest for me. I have fallen in love with the chanting of the Church but as I think on it, I really don’t know why it is done. I have a strong feeling it is related to this post, where the bells are “icons of the Voice of God” I believe chanting has to be something along the same lines. Could someone help me here?

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    Marcus read this article and see if it has some answers.

  23. J.D. of Wharton Avatar
    J.D. of Wharton


    I am moving into the church and like you am blessed by the chanting as it seems to wash over me in a good way. I must admit though when it comes to the reading of the epistle and the gospel verses I focus on the writings either in the program or in my Bible as I lose some of the continuity of the message as the chanting moves so slowly. Oddly, I don’t have that challenge when Psalms are chanted. It’s not a criticism, just a testament to my fraility as a human.

  24. Yudikris Avatar

    Thank you father, for a great article. I find this is new for me to know about the meaning of the bell. And honestly, when I am pondering upon the Holy Tradition, I am always amazed because of its profound and glorious meaning and beauty.

    This has been a blessing for me, father. Thank you!

  25. Darla Avatar

    Aaron, many thanks for posting the link to The Wow O’Riven. My day was enriched in the reading.

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