Column by Icy Frantz: Rings a Bell

By Icy Frantz

Last December, I got to witness a good friend ringing the bell to signify the end of treatment. It was a celebratory ring that, in her case, was accentuated by a fierce yank that broke the cord attached to the bell. Once the situation was righted, she rung with pride and gratitude and maybe a little additional spirit as if to say – take that Cancer. And I shed a few tears- both proud of and inspired by my friend and the many others who battle this awful disease.

This ceremonial ritual originated in 1996 at MD Anderson when a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, Irve Le Moyne, undergoing radiation therapy, told his doctor that he planned to follow a Navy tradition of ringing a bell to signify “when the job was done.” He brought a brass bell to his last treatment, rang it several times and left it as a donation.

Today a bell is rung when a patient completes treatment in over 82% of our Nations cancer institutes.

While the Navy rings a bell to signify a job done, and patients in cancer centers rejoice in the same, the ringing of bells, all bells, heard throughout history, has the power to excite, alert and in many cases, warm the soul.

For me, the sound of ringing bells is nostalgic, transporting me back to my days on a New England Campus where the Westminster Quarters vibrated from the chapel steeple every 15 minutes to mark the quarter –hour and heightened chimes rang on the hour to correlate with the exact time- one for 1:00, two for two o’clock etc.

I remember desperate attempts to arrive at my dormitory by check-in just as the last bell struck 11 pm- phew or hearing the quarter bells chime and relaxing in the knowledge that I had 15 more minutes before I was expected at calculous. Still today, when I return to campus, I listen for the bells to organize my day. The sound seems to connect me and my small Episcopal school to a much bigger world.

But the ringing of church bells has less to do with punctuality and whether I will arrive on time and more to do with reminding everyone that God is present. In Christian church’s, bells indicate that a worship service is beginning and are used as a sign that something of importance has happened in the life of the church or one of its members: a birth, death, marriage. And bells are rung on the great liturgical feasts, such as Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas.

What is Christmas without bells? They play a role in the stories we tell and read to our children. I love this quote from one of our family favorites, The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg.

“At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”

And in some of the most iconic Christmas movies like It’s a wonderful Life where “Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” And we sing about them in Jingle bells, I heard the bells on Christmas Day, and -Sleighbells Ringing-can you hear them?

Religions all over the world use bells evocatively. In Buddhist temples, the vibrations of a bell are thought to awaken the sleeping soul. To Hindus, ringing bells create an aura that calms the mind and cleanses the sins.

The ringing of a bell is part of our workday too –bells are used prominently at the New York Stock Exchange where an opening bell is rung at 9:30 am EST to start the day and a closing bell at 4 pm EST marks the end.

Just as a side note- The first bell used at the New York Stock Exchange was actually a large Chinese gong. However, in 1903, the gong was replaced by an electronically operated brass bell manufactured by a company from Norwalk Connecticut. Go Connecticut!

And in the US, the Liberty Bell may be the most famous of all. And although there is back story to the significance of the bell located in Philadelphia- it is most known as the chime that changed the world when on July 8th, 1776 the Liberty Bell was rung from the tower of Independence Hall beckoning the citizens of Philadelphia to hear the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

So why all of this noise about bells- some of the oldest musical instruments in the world, dating back to China 3500 BC? For me, it’s just that – the sound of bells breaks through the noise. Their song reaches out and gentling takes us by the hand – come this way, take note, this is important. They guide us beautifully through the many transitions in life- the routine and the remarkable- from treatment to health, start to finish, oppression to freedom and connect us to a broader world, another time, the spiritual. Maybe Chris Van Allsburg got it right- to hear the sound of bells is a gift “for all who truly believe.”

I imagine, you have your own favorite bells- ones that evoke nostalgia or arouse an emotion. I love the bells that emanate unexpectedly from the steeple of St. Paul’s church in Riverside and nourishes the neighborhood with magic and awe and always lets me know that I am almost home. (with bells on)

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