Thursday, December 31, 2009

I Hear the Bells on New Years Too.

After the stillness, there are the bells. Bells give off light, did you know that? I think it is light passing on to our souls through sound.

I've always associated the continuous peeling of bells with New Year's Eve. It was then that my Grandpa August Johnson would climb the rickety stairs to the bell town of the little, white country church where I grew up and pull the bell ropes. They would be rung exactly one thousand, nine hundred and whatever odd year of the twentieth century we had arrived at that stroke of midnight. One for every year since the birth of Christ. He took a great pleasure in it, for New Year's eve was also his birthday.

There is something about bells that is hopeful -- filled with the light of both joy and sadness, don't you think? Bells ring for occasions that are personal celebrations – birth, death, marriage, anniversaries. And they sound for common celebrations and shared grief – the death of a president, the marking of a national tragedy like 911, the end of a war, the landing of men on the moon. Tonight and tomorrow, they mark a brand new year, a new decade, a new turn of the page.

This year, this year...where we pass from the 000 years to the century's teenage decade, I remember the peel of the bells of Paris. Because, for me, Paris counted as one of the five wonderful high marks of our family's year. And there was something about the respect accorded bells there that I wish we paid to bells here.

Bells. The carillon sound came from every quarter...on the half hour, the hour and to mark particular points of the day. They say that the bells of Paris rung on August 25, 1944, the day of the liberation of Paris – like they had not wrung since Bastille Day. What must that have been like to hear the banging, clanging, tin-tinnabulating echo sounding across the rooftops and rolling down the boulevards on a day like that one?

We weren't even there during a special time of year and we could hear them through out the Arrondissements. Here, some of my favorites – the throaty sound of the bells in the 200 ft tall bell towers of Notre Dame. The higher, lighter peel from the bells of the Church of st. Eustache at Les Halles (the church of the market workers). The deep heavenly tone of the bells in the campanile of the Sacré-Coeur where hangs the nineteen ton La Savoyarde. The tingling peel of the bells – in an acoustically perfect echo, of the bells of Sainte Chapelle, completed in1248 and still called the most beautiful church in Paris.

Bells rang from La Madeleine in the Paris financial district and at St. Suplice, the “Chapel of the Angels” in the Latin quarter , where they blend with the sounds of the bells at La Sorbonne, founded in 1253. And bells hold sway over the Eglise du Dôme, over Napoleon Bonaparte's tomb, although they didn't ring that I heard while I was there.

Still, for me, the dearest bells are the poor simple bells in the bell tower of the East Immanuel Lutheran Church. Those bells Grandpa rung told the sweet story of our family's sojourn in America – as he was the first one born in his family in America. I cannot say whether he rang the old year out, or the new year in, but this truth as Madeline l'Engel once pointed out, I do know; “a new year can begin only because the old year ends.”

Happy 2010!

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