“Do you know what happened to the bell?” I was surprised by how many people asked me that when I became chaplain of St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School. They were asking about the sanctus bell, used to mark important points in a Eucharistic prayer. Pictures of our chapel from the 1930’s show a bell right next to the altar, a boy kneeling beside it with a mallet. It makes sense that we would have one, since our chapel was built by the Order of the Holy Cross, an Episcopal order of monks who took their high church liturgy seriously.
But when I arrived as chaplain two years ago, no one knew what had become of the sanctus bell. Alumni would ask me where it was, and I would have to admit that I had no idea. They would look wistful and tell me about the hours they spent polishing brass, the white gloves they wore as acolytes, and the privilege of being the one who got to ring the sanctus bell. All I could do was tell them I wished I knew where it was.
Then in April we began a project to restore the St. Andrew’s-Sewanee chapel. As the building was being prepared, we found a dusty crate in a storage area. We looked inside, and there was the bell. The brass was a bit dulled and the wooden stand a little dry, but it was the same bell from the old pictures.
I called one of our alumni, someone who had asked about the bell on a few occasions. “I think I’ve found the sanctus bell,” I said. I described it, and waited for his response. There was silence for a moment, and then I heard his voice, choked with emotion. “That’s it,” he said. “That’s the bell.”
He wasn’t just crying over the bell. He was crying because he was on his way to the funeral of a classmate, someone who had heard him ring that bell in chapel some fifty years earlier. And in that moment he was back in chapel with his friend, young and full of wonder.
A few weeks ago we rededicated our restored chapel, and among the ten acolytes that day was one lucky girl who got to ring the sanctus bell. The wood has been oiled, the brass has been polished, and the soft, clear tone is as beautiful today as it was in the 1930’s. As it rang, I imagined the generations of students who had heard it before. I imagined them hearing the same words of hope and forgiveness that we speak every week, and breaking the same bread. And I thought of today’s students, and the incredible privilege of sharing with them what is now their chapel.
It’s worth remembering, of course, that it’s only a bell; just metal and wood. As one friend reminded me, “I’m glad you found it, but remember, it’s just stuff.” True. But a core teaching of Christianity is that God likes stuff. God likes it enough, in fact, to become it in the Incarnation. “The Word was made flesh” is just another way of saying “God was made stuff.” God dwelled in this world with a human body, working with physical stuff. And although objects and rituals aren’t all that important in themselves, God works in them. They can be the language God uses to tell us what is most important.
Goodness knows we have lots of stuff in our schools, physical and otherwise. We have trophies and buildings, traditions and songs. That stuff is powerful. And when we listen, it is God’s vocabulary, telling us who we are and whose we are, connecting us across time to generations before us and generations to come, and pointing us toward our final home in the presence of our Creator, where we won’t need bells to tell us God is near.
The Rev. Drew Bunting is Chaplain at St. Andrew's-Sewanee in Sewanee TN.