Rev E B Belizar, Jr.
“Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tools; it tolls for thee.”
— John Donne, “No Man is an Island”
Indeed. The bells of Balangiga toll not simply for its people but also for every Filipino, nay, for every adult man, woman, young person and child who goes beyond the ups and downs, the ins and the outs of their return and rather asks the why behind the bells themselves.
The government says that the bells belong to our national patrimony.
The counterpart government that once kept them said that they were a war booty.
The local Church, the Diocese of Borongan to which the Parish of St. Lawrence of Rome, Martyr, in Balangiga, Eastern Samar belongs, has long been saying, with unceasing insistence, that the bells are really instruments that call people to prayer and worship, of which the Eucharist is the highest form. They have nothing to do, at all, with war.
In the final analysis, this last is the narrative that may have brought the bells back where they belong. It held sway even over the most zealous opposition to their return. For even if we grant that the bells were misused by Filipino revolutionaries to signal the attack on their foreign occupiers, this does not at all detract from the truth that the bells belong to the Church, a sign of “mankind’s union with God and the unity of all mankind” (LG 1), not to any of the warring parties. Even the very principle of separation of Church and State already precludes holding them as war trophies.
That said, I propose that we turn up some stones to find a few potentially missed opportunities.
First off, could not the bells’ return be an urgent reminder and invitation to the nation (ours) and to the nations (the world) to go back to the worship and prayer addressed to the true God, and not to money, power, sex, fame, science and technology, or today’s overpowering obsessions—the internet and social media? Don’t the bells, in their antiquity and durability, take us to the “Beauty ever ancient, ever new” who is God himself in contrast to our ever temporary and passing selves, our impermanent fashions and passions? I wonder if the bells do not, in fact, express the psalmist’s words: “Give unto the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps 29:2). In a word, do not we hear the bells say: “Stop worshiping yourselves and your world. Start worshipping the One real worship is for”?
Second, if prayer and worship are what the bells are for, then our real heritage that they represent is the cultivation of our prayer life as individuals and as communities. At this point in their story, I am afraid the Balangiga bells could become museum artifacts or tourist attractions in the days ahead. They could add to the enhancement of the local economy or to the adulation of local or national heroes and personalities. But whether or not they lead more people to an ever deeper encounter and communication with the One who loves them most is a hundred-peso question. Call it impertinence but the truth is, there are things for which the bells do not toll.
Third, while the bells’ tolling reach our ears, the bells’ meaning should reach our hearts. After all, as St. Therese of Lisieux powerfully put it, prayer is “the surge of the heart; it means the lifting up of one’s eyes, quite simply to heaven, a cry of grateful love, from the crest of joy to the trough of despair, it is a vast, supernatural force that opens out my heart and binds me close to Jesus.” Ultimately the Balangiga bells, therefore, belong in our hearts. They do not belong in museums or tourist shrines. There is an added advantage in taking on this point of view in that though the bells may not occupy all belfries or places of worship and prayer, they could be rightly in everyone’s hearts. There is where prayer and worship begins.
Fourth, if the bells are inseparable from prayer and worship, prayer and worship are themselves inseparable from life. The bells, in a word, toll for our continual conversion. St. Alphonsus Liguori makes a strong reminder: “Whoever does not give up on prayer cannot possibly continue to offend God.” More specifically St. Teresa of Avila declares: “I would never want any prayer that would not make the virtues grow within me.” No one can say that the Balangiga bells are part of our heritage without renouncing not only corruption and the drug menace but also the drugs-and-politics-related killings, the use of fake news as self-defense or self-promotion, fanning hatred by public cursing and shaming of enemies, generating political and character assassinations etc.
Finally, it is not certain at all if the Balangiga bells will be rung the way they used to be before their captivity. They may prove too old or their tolling too dulled by disuse. Or the local Church may decide that their purposes are better served by simply seeing them as mute witnesses not only to history but especially to the eloauence of God’s love that needs to be adored in silence. And whether or not they will be heard again by our ears is not as important as whether or not they will be heard by our hearts.
For the bells are meant to also bring us the words of the psalmist: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps 95:7).