An interview with a bell-ringer

Bell-ringing as a service to God

November 20, 2020

bell tower of convent

Every church bell rings differently

These two large bells that toll together are 'annunciation bells'. One weighs 520 kilogrammes and the other 270 kilogrammes. These medium-sized ones are alto bells, and the small ones are soprano bells.

I cannot read music, but I have an ear for it. Experienced bell ringers will tell you that absolute hearing is more a liability than an asset in their trade. The reason? Musicians are highly sensitive to the accuracy of each note. But in bell ringing, the pitches are far less accurate, because each bell is made differently. Manufacturers use different processes, so the bells sound with a variety of overtones. No two bells toll the same. Each bell has its voice, just like people. I often hear the inaccuracies, but this does not put me off. But to people with an absolute hearing, they may sound like un-musical noise’. They would feel very uncomfortable.

Anyone can learn to ring the church bells. Besides being willing and interested, one should also have at least some sense of rhythm, melody and tone to become a bell ringer. One should know which bell to ring at each moment, and which to leave idle. Bell ringing is very much about improvisation. Unlike players of other instruments, we do not write our music on scales. But we need a lot of patience and hard work. These are the top prerequisites.

bells st elisabeth convent

I have been a bell-ringer for 20 years. When the Convent was just being built, and there was no bell tower, just one tiny bell was all we had. I wanted to learn to ring bells very much, and I had a lot of energy. I liked the sound, and I was curious about the techniques. So I asked father Andrey Lemeshonok for his blessing to learn. A bell ringers' school had just opened in Minsk by that time, so I joined it. The learning took three months. We mastered the basics and core skills. They expected us to learn the rest as we practised.

Honestly, bell ringing is hard work. There are times when I am not feeling well, but I need to go up that tower and ring. Sometimes, I see all these people coming to church for the prayer, and I want to sound more lively and joyful, but I just cannot. Bell ringing is important because it makes people attuned for worship, so I have a great responsibility. My performance is greatly affected by my spiritual, physical and mental state. People can tell the difference very well. It is always the ringer who makes the sound.

Despite all the difficulties of my obedience, I would be very sad if I were not doing it. For me, bell ringing is more than a habit. It is my life.

The meaning of church bell ringing

In the Russian church tradition, it has always been believed that bell ringing was the voice of God addressed to the people. It is heard in heaven and on earth. As a messenger of God, a bell ringer has no right to do his job poorly.

The sounding of church bells acts on people in some special way. Its impact is elusive, and at the same time very real. The music of the bells is also believed to have healing power.

bell ringing

At the beginning of the Covid pandemic, Metropolitan Pavel, the then archbishop of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, gave his blessing to ring the bells every three hours. All the bell ringers at the Convent were ill at that time, and I was also having a bad fever. I had great difficulty going up the tower to ring the bells, but I felt a lot better when I finished. I got the illness, but it was not severe. I attribute this to the bell ringing. Other people have asked for permission to go up and ring the bells in the hope that it would make them feel better afterwards. But this depends fully on the strength of one's faith.

People need to have faith. Material attributes and symbols are essential to the faith, as no-one can exist in a void. People find comfort in coming to church, lighting a candle and looking at it. Everything at church serves to create a prayerful atmosphere. Bell ringing is a part of it.

A bell ringer’s calling

To live in Christ means to give. If I had not joined the sisterhood, I may not have remained at church, and become a monastic. Being a servant means being responsible to those being served. Bell-ringing is a service. It takes a lot of self-denial. I once visited a chapel tower in a small Belarusian town. The church is very old, and one needs to go up a steep winding staircase of stone to ring its bells. The climb is very long and exhausting. But you get a great sense of overcoming when you reach the top. Our ladder is just ten stairs, and climbing it is no great hardship. The challenge is to lift people's hearts by doing your job well. At the Convent, we ring for no more than 15 minutes before a worship service or the procession of the cross. But sometimes, these fifteen minutes feel like ages. In cold weather, for example, they seem to last forever. People are selfish, and would much rather take than give. One's dedication to one's work is as great as his ability to be unselfish.

bell tower of st elisabeth convent

Some churches are using electronic chimes - a machine that generates the sound of the church bells. People are weak, they may fall ill, and replacing people by machines seems an attractive solution. Just one push of a button - and everyone enjoys the music of the bells with perfect pitches. But I think that no machine can ever be as good a human bell ringer. A bell ringer will give of himself.

Admittedly, we do not always play when we are at our best. But God sheds His love equally on the ringer and the listener. He will transform the sound that comes from the bell tower before it reaches the people's ears. I had this happen to me. It was my turn to ring. I knew that I rang poorly, and I was saying to myself: "O merciful Lord! What awful sound! These poor people must listen to this". But when I got down, people were saying to me, "How outstanding! We never heard you ring like that before. Amazing!"

So when I go up to the top of the bell tower, I am not afraid. I know that the Lord will cover my iniquities and weaknesses. I only pray that He let me be His good messenger. He hears me, and this is not because I have some outstanding talent or skill, but because I am working for the people. I would be very happy to know that my ringing warms people's hearts and puts them in a prayerful mood.

Interview and photos: Olga Demidiuk

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