Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! How it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells,bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!
Edgar Allan Poe, from “The Bells”
They are heard and seldom seen. They are locked away in towers, ancient and nearly invisible, their beauty declared only in their voices now. More even than foreign languages, so varied in their cadences and emotions, they are the soundtrack of our continent. They woke me on my first morning in Europe, almost ten years ago, when I swung the window open on its wide hinges, letting in the morning air and peering up at the grey fortress above Salzburg. The bells have followed me ever since.
On Pentecost Sunday (Pfingsten in German), I wander up to the Stadtkirche (local Lutheran church) for Glockenfest, an ill-defined “Bell Festival” that I’d thought sounded interesting. Kandern hosts an unlikely number of festivals for such a small town. Someday I imagine I’ll understand and expect them all, but living in “downtown” Kandern this year has led to many games of What Are We Celebrating Today? Most of the celebrations are fantastic parties, their jubilant music, lively booths and cheap, delicious food drawing locals from all over the area. On festival days, our tiny town generally fills to the brim.
So I’m surprised when I emerge onto the sleepy, empty streets of a normal summer Sunday. I wander across the Marktplatz up to the square in front of the church, where I find several dozen tables and a few tents full of food for sale. Since I’ve already eaten and come alone, I linger at the edge of the crowd, people-watching while I wait for the “bell blessing” ceremony that’s meant to begin soon. Though I recognize only a few faces in the crowd, I get the sense that they all know each other, as if I’d wandered into someone’s church picnic. Children decorate balsa-wood crosses in a craft tent, while parents in traditional clothes lean laughing across the long tables.
After a few minutes, the Männerchor (Men’s Choir) lines up on the church steps to sing. I spot an elderly woman that I know from the Frauenchor, and stand beside her. She grins when she spots me, squeezing my hand warmly.
“Ah! Toll dass du da bist!” she cries. “Great that you’re here!”
We chat for a while as we wait for the bells. She tells me that her son is in the Männerchor, and we listen to the men singing Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty in German, their voices rising over the hushed whispers of the crowd.
The bells come trundling out after a few hymns, riding on a decorated trailer behind a decorated tractor, all trimmed in leaves and purple crosses in honor of the holiday. We watch as the bells make a slow circle through the small crowd, and people get close enough to snap pictures. One bell says “Peace” in a dozen different languages. On the other, Jeremiah 29:7 is engraved in German beneath our town’s name and crest. When the photos snap to a halt, the pastor and bishop dedicate the bells, reading psalms and saying prayers, leading us in a hymn of blessing.
I didn’t get the words to the hymn, so when I can’t read over the shoulder of the man next to me, I watch the crowd. Many of them know this hymn by heart, and sing it with the lusty voices they’ll later use in chorus to the hearty German love songs in the Männerchor’s next set. I watch families singing together, watch the pastor presiding over this momentous occasion, watch the women I know from the Frauenchor, celebrating with their children and grandchildren in this, their city.
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,” Jeremiah once wrote to the Israelites. Exile is a dark word, and hardly appropriate for my time here in Kandern. I don’t know fully what it means to seek the welfare of this town, how best to know and love my neighbors, where and when to invest in the local life here. But today, standing in the sunshine with these people who begin to look familiar, singing German hymns to a common Lord, seems like a beginning.
“Pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.” I do, and will, pray that the love of Christ will infuse our city, as prominent and ever-present as the bells that sing us through the day and night.