Archive for May 4th, 2009

The Bells

May 4, 2009

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.