I bought a copy of Brideshead Revisited years ago after studying, and enjoying, Evelyn Waugh in a literature class. And I really enjoyed that miniseries based on the story back in the 80s with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews. As always, I’m charmed by Waugh’s language and humour. One particular passage particularly struck me, wherein Charles is walking out on a Sunday morning heading to a cafe for breakfast:
I walked down the empty Broad to breakfast, as I often did on Sundays, at a tea-shop opposite Balliol. The air was full of bells from the surrounding spires and the sun, casting long shadows across the open spaces, dispelled the fears of the night.
The passage reminded me of a radio documentary local CBC talk guy Kevin Sylvester did recently about church bells, and how they are starting to become a thing of the past here in North America. Church bells have never been as fixed in our culture as they have been in Europe, mainly because such things as cathedrals – and as such their place within a community – are relatively rare. And in today’s world, even the smaller churches, with their reduced populations and increased money problems, don’t end up repairing those bells that become damaged or deemed unsafe to use.
One part of Sylvester’s story that really astounded me was that here in Toronto, in the area where there are several large and historic churches with beautiful bells, the churches are not ringing them on Sunday mornings because of threats from the neighbourhood people that they would sue the church for disturbing the peace.
On reading Waugh’s passage, I was filled with grief, for yet another tearing away at beauty because it’s not seen to fit in with modern day needs. I understand that beauty is something us immigrant North Americans might never have really valued as a people – those early settlers had to first conquer the landscape and just survive. And then it was all about the worship of modernity and all things new; all things came to reflect that focus, including our values.
I was filled with grief because the sound of churches all sounding bells together was once experienced as a weekly ethereal escape from the drudgery of weekday life, and is now, in Toronto at least, considered a disturbance of the peace. I was filled with grief for us at losing, bit by bit, the value of beauty as an important and defining endeavour. I worry what this is doing to our psyches. And what have we replaced it with?
Copyright © Jennifer Morrison 2009