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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Jin Lee

Church Bells

Below the quiet lull and even unexpectedly productive days, an undercurrent of fear hides not far from the surface.

Images of exhausted health workers, projections of spread, and the innumerous unknowns keep us awake in the middle of the night, in the middle of the day. We are careful to keep our distance as we glance across grocery aisles for a mutual contact of cautious acknowledgement.

We have become proximate strangers. Perhaps, we always were. Yet, now the mandated and anxiety-filled space between us is awakening our common desire for connection, our need to know that we are not alone.

A recent thread of posts on my neighborhood app signaled a yearning for community.

A suggestion was made that the local church ring its bells in the evening during the Stay at Home Order. “The church bells will remind everyone in the neighborhood that they are not alone.” Another wrote, “It will encourage all of us to join our thoughts and prayers together as one.” Another replied, “I am not religious, but my fears would welcome church bells.” This is the same neighborhood app once used to report coyote sightings and complaints about unidentified parked cars. Last week's on-line conversation about church bells was sandwiched between tips on where one might be able to find paper goods and eggs.

Starting yesterday, the local church bell is ringing again. At 6pm, I could hear the faint echoes filling the dusk sky with a dignified calm, causing me to pause, to step out of my front door to lean my ear, yearning to catch more of its clarion call.

The Angelus is a prayer recitation practiced in the Catholic tradition. At dusk, the church bell would ring to signal a time for this prayer. This moment of devotion is captured in a well-known painting by Jean-François Millet, L'Angélus. Bells resound from the distant church tower. Two farmers, husband and wife, put down their earthly tools; their modest harvest of a handful of potatoes at their feet; they pause from the labor of their own hands and bow their hearts, returning their day, their livelihood, to God.

This painting hung in my parents-in-law’s house. When I lived with them for a short time, I would see them in this painting when they returned home at my 7am breakfast hour. They rose every morning at 4:30am and headed to church for daily dawn prayer service. This was their practice for 40 faithful years of ministry. I saw what quiet devotion and steadfast faith look like—in still life and in living witness.

Not every neighborhood will galvanize around a suggestion that the usually unnoticed little church begin to ring its bells. But I can’t help wonder if the fears running under all us would be stilled by more church bells ringing in cities and towns, proclaiming a reassurance that those of us professing faith in God remain steadfast in our prayers.

Perhaps, those who are “not religious” can lean on those who pause to pray. Perhaps, we can borrow one another’s faith.

And while we are isolated in homes, persevering in hospitals, wandering in cold streets, we might together collect our fears and together collect enough hope for these trying days.


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