The Bells of St Mary’s

Some years ago, my late morning sleep was somewhat spent as I woke to a constant, distant, thud, thud, thud.  It happened every few seconds, and it echoed round the place where I live, puncturing the day, every day, and I had no idea where the sound came from or what it was.  I blamed it on the industrial units nearby, known for the bang and clatter of metal, though not as mentally taunting as this particular din.   Frustrated by the pure Chinese Torture of it all, I contacted the council who couldn’t help and then, disappointed by their lack of success, I walked the beat to find the beat, seeking out the sound.  It simply turned out to be a building site on Dumballs Road where piles were being driven into the ground for the foundations of Cardiff and Vale College, digging, driving deep down so that the city can grow up and out.  As soon as I knew what made the sound my frustration was allayed, and lay simply with the fact that the contractors hadn’t prepared us (me?) for the noise.  The sounds have now returned again, each day from eight ’til four, as the further foundations of Dumballs Road and Tyndall Street and the site of Central Station are prepared for more growing up and growing out.

Some years ago, my predecessor priest and friend, Fr Graham, had received a phone call from the council.  Someone had complained about the Sunday morning bells, beckoning the faithful to Mass in one of his other churches across the River Taff in Grangetown.  Did it need to be as long, as loud, as lingeringly early?  The priest put up his case, that the bells had rung each Sunday for as long as the church had been there.  Thirty three rings, each year of the Lord’s earthly life.  The conversation came to an end.  The bells still ring. I remember my Great Aunty Pat, now long dead, had made the same complaint of the church near to her home in the Rhondda. That was before her illness, her elderliness, had taken her to hospital.  One day, I received a call that she was close to death.  By the time I arrived, she had died, and so all I could do was stand by her bedside and offer the prayers for her journey home, whispering words over her, hoping that they helped, knowing that the words, in life, would have made no sense to her.  Perhaps.

Some years ago, one of the towers at St Mary’s was equipped with digital bells.  The tower took some clearing out.  Decades (a century?) of pigeon poop, a foot, two foot, three foot high.  The bells, a gift in memory of Fr Jordan a previous parish priest, couldn’t have been installed under a better custodian than Fr Graham for whom the bells gave great delight. In addition to the horde of hymn tunes which could hit the high notes, each day at 12noon and 6pm the Angelus rings out, three sets of three chimes, followed by a nine.  The bells accompany the praying of a litany of love which remembers the Incarnation.  They puncture time, they measure time, to remember the moment when God the timeless One took flesh and blood from Mary, saving us from where we are with all the matter and the mess we make.

Sometimes, depending on the weather and the wind, the sound of St Mary’s bells can be heard across Lloyd George Avenue, and deep down into the heart of Loudoun Square and perhaps, on a good day, at the edge of the city centre, where the Hayes spreads out.  The other day, as I walked home from the local shop, carrying a pint or two of milk up the length of Lloyd George Avenue, I found myself reciting the Angelus, even before I consciously realised the mid-day bells had stirred me into prayer.  For some, the Angelus ring may be a distantly irritating sound, sub-consciously heard, brushed to the back of the mind, misunderstood.  But someone, somewhere, is praying the Angelus, whispering words that may or may not make sense to those who happen to hear, remembering the time when the matter and the mess we make is met by the Incarnate God.

And so the city digs down in order to grow up and out, puncturing the day with its rhythmic sounds heard between the city and the bay.  Between the beats of metal battling with rock and soil, the Angelus still rings out on Bute Street, puncturing the air, each day at noon and dusk.  Perhaps, as the city grows up and out, the pile-driving offers another litany of its own, secular, seeking something better, bigger, brighter, not knowing that the earth into which it drives has already felt the touch of the divine, and feels it still.

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