Church-Bells Beyond the Stars

Michael Wilcock

Read: Isaiah 33:17-20

The king in his beauty . . . a land of far distances. (v. 17)

“Church-bells beyond the stars heard”: here is a remarkable phrase. This is picture language, of course, but perhaps the strangest of all these metaphors for prayer. And here is light on it from another English poet, this time only one century ago! A. E. Housman wrote “Bredon Hill,” a notable viewpoint in the west of England: “In summertime on Bredon / The bells they sound so clear; / Round both the shires they ring them, / In steeples far and near.” We hear much less bell ringing in my country nowadays. But for Herbert in the 17th century, as for Housman in the early 20th, it was “a happy noise to hear.” Familiar, regular, a universal call to focus afresh on God and his gospel: “Good people, come and pray,” sang the bells.

But notice the background to today’s title. In the previous line of his sonnet the older poet has been stargazing, looking out at the vastness of the universe, to somewhere even beyond the Milky Way, where God the Creator-King sits enthroned. Truly his creation is “a land of far distances” (v. 17). Yet as Herbert’s mind struggles to take in this immensity, what happens? “Beyond the stars” he hears “church bells.” Good people, come and pray, sing the chiming steeples around Bredon. These gatherings of humble village folk, “summoned by bells,” are likely to be encounters with God even more real, and of greater significance, than what an astronomer might find at the far end of the universe. —Michael Wilcock

Prayer: Lord, stretch my limited thinking.