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1 May 2009

One often sees advertisements for ringtones for cell (mobile) phones and I’ve never been tempted by them, but perhaps if someone produced one with Russian church bells on it, I might be tempted to use it as a ringtone for calls from clergy or something.

Fr Milovan has an interesting post on Russian Church bells:

Fr. Roman, head bell ringer at the Danilov Monastery, a “towering figure in his early thirties, well over six feet tall, with enormous hands and a flowing chestnut beard.” He explains that just as painted icons are not intended to be mimetic representations of a spiritual object but magical windows into the world of the spiritual, so too bells are not musical instruments. Rather it is:

“‘…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.’”

I first read about Russian church bells in Dostoevsky’s The brothers Karamazov, where a dog called Perezvon is a symbol of resurrection, and the name signifies a chime of bells. Not long after reading it, I visited the village of Klin, north-west of Moscow, and in a newly-restored church heard the bells.

More recently, on the recommendation of a friend, I read The nine tailors by Dorothy Sayers, where the plot revolves around church bells in an English village. English bell ringing is very different in style from Russian, and is based on mathematical permutations, but in both there is the element of the voice of God sounding over the landscape.

When the Bolsheviks tried to impose atheism and erase God from Russia, one of the first things they did was to knock the domes off the temples, and destroy the bells. To them these were mere superstitions, yet their zeal and anger against them showed that they were symbols that really did have power. By destroying the bells they really did believe that they were silencing the voice of God, and by toppling the domes they were removing signs of God from the landscape itself.

And when the churches were restored in the 1990s, after the Bolsheviks themselves had been toppled, many were, in a sense, built from the top down. The floor might not be surfaced, and might be a rough obstacle course of electrical conduits and jumbled bricks, but up above the golden domes were there, and the bells spoke the voice of God across the landscape.

Many Westerners were critical when the Russian Orthodox Church rebuilt the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. It had been destroyed on Stalin’s orders in 1931, and the site was used for a public swimming pool until the 1990s. But Americans sometimes express a similar desire when they say that the World Trade Centre must be rebuilt, or else terrorism will have won. So Russian churches have been rebuilt, with domes and bells coming before the floor. If people want to do it for temples of Mammon, why not for temples of God?

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