There’s nothing like the sound of Church bells ringing high up in the spire of an old Church, calling passers-by to remember God through the day at every hour, and half-hour of the clock. When I was very young we were taught what was traditionally known as the blessing of the hour. When the Church bells rang, we were to stop what we were doing, and remain silent until the last chime. Later on that moment of silence would be replaced by a Hail Mary. The sound of the bells ringing, and echoing through the surrounding blocks of my Brooklyn neighborhood sounded like heaven was joining in; swinging its own bells, for every swing of ours.
Inside the Church, beeswax candles burned at the feet of statues and icons. They were everywhere, and they gave off a sort of holy-glow and a distinct, subtle scent as they burned. It was sort of a Catholic smell, and the temperature of the light they gave off was sort of a holy light that made the inside of the church look different from the rest of the world.
“…incense was the smell of the Holy Church herself.”
Then there was the incense. If burning beeswax candles gave off a “Catholic smell”, then incense was the smell of the Holy Church herself. There was incense at every mass. The aroma seemed to seep into the wood of the walls and pews; you could smell “Catholic Church” for hours, and days after any incense had been used.
Now those bells have been replaced by electric bells. They aren’t loud enough or bold enough to create an echo anywhere, in fact you can barely hear them even a block away. If the old, real bells sounded like the Church was calling your attention, the new electric bells sound like they’re saying there’s nothing important to see here, and feel free to carry on. The old bells sounded majestic. The electric bells sound like they’re indifferent to their role. But the electric bells are more practical and probably and easier system to maintain. And they can play music! So I guess that’s good. Right? I’m sure there’s a legitimate reason for replacing real bells with electric bells, but it’s the legitimate loss that saddens me.
The beeswax candles have long been replaced by electric candles. Also more practical and cost-efficient, the electric candles are made of plastic, instead of beeswax, have a gold plastic collar around the top, instead of brass, and for a wick it uses a flickering light, designed to look like a flame, and flicker like real candlelight.
Incense hasn’t been replaced by anything. It’s just gone. But I suppose we could say that in many churches the atmosphere of sanctity that incense created has been replaced by the practicality of easy-to-swallow homilies; and the aroma has been replaced by charisma in the sanctuary. The former being rich and fragrant, the latter being neutralized and seemingly indifferent to itself.
“Replacing the real with the synthetic is fast becoming a new Catholic character”
This isn’t a unique phenomenon. This replacement of the rich for the practical is happening in a great deal of Catholic churches. Replacing the real with the synthetic is fast becoming a new Catholic character; a character that’s sythetic. We replace the real with the synthetic, and are left with something that’s just really synthetic. It has no life. It has false-being, because it has no being, it’s only imitating something else.
Now, bells are bells. They all tell you the time on the hour, and half-hour. Lighting an electric candle is the same devotion as lighting an actual candle. And our prayers rise up to God, and the sacrifice at the altar is still meaningful and efficacious whether there is incense used in the mass or not. But don’t we lose something of the life and character of the faith without those real things? Aren’t our senses deprived by the synthetic, and the environment of a Church made more like the common environments of our daily lives? When our body’s senses are are not elevated from out of the common, our spiritual senses are also left behind. Mass, or an ordinary visit to a Church, just becomes a pitstop, and less of a perception of interfacing with something greater than ourselves, and higher than our daily experiences
As Catholics, we sometimes adopt this paradigm. It happens over time; usually because of neglect, rather than our of desire. We can almost think of it as an accident, or a miscalculation. But if we aren’t on guard; if we aren’t sober and alert, we slowly, gradually replace the real faith in our hearts with a synthetic faith that’s more practical, more convenient, and utterly lifeless. We behave like Catholics, but not as Catholics—just like those electric candles are like real Candles, but can never be real candles, and never give the same light as real candles. We say things that sound like Catholicism, but don’t sound like holiness, because our spiritual formation has become as shallow as the sound from those electric bells.
In the busyness of life, and due to our fallen nature, we are often tempted to replace the real faith with a synthetic one. But fake bells don’t ring out and echo in the world, calling people’s attention to God. Fake candles don’t give off a holy glow, or a “Catholic smell”. And replacing incense with an amicable charisma generates no atmosphere of the sacred, and leaves no lasting sign that it was ever there once the moment has past.
Let us all pray for the culture of the Church, that we all make right decisions that restore life, substance, and realness, to the experience of the Catholic faith. With a fresh understanding, and renewed zeal, let us call on the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth, by renewing the whole Church.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth.