Scene and Heard

Tintinnabulation Meets Technology: The Mad Monk Is No More

By Scene And Heard
Monday, September 14, 2009

There is a mad monk who lives in the bowels of a church with a tall steeple and a loud bell.

At least, that's how I came to picture it.

He sleeps late, drinks heavily and has a mind of his own.

At least, that's the best explanation I could come up with.

That, and that he wakes up thirsty. Oh, and nobody has told him that the liquor store on West Street has shut down for good. (Its delivery boy works in the sushi joint now.)

So the monk stumbles in a stupor, grabs the bell rope and leans into it for a few licks, hoping the delivery boy will come running with a fresh bottle of Irish whiskey.

The church, the steeple and the bell are very real. It has taken me years to figure out the rest of that story. Finally, when the bell began ringing on Friday, I decided it was time to hunt the monk down.

And I walked in to discover the mad monk being murdered before my very eyes.

Before we tackle the details, however, allow me to set the scene.

St. Anne's Church sits in the middle of a circle near the gateway to Annapolis, a circle that has confused tourists for more than three centuries. In Annapolis, and with much of America, anything that has been standing in the same place for a long time is proclaimed "historic," even if not a single thing of historical interest ever occurred there. Not so with St. Anne's, however. Long before the murder of the mad monk, the church was known to kings and queens (who sent gifts but never visited), and virtually anybody who mattered in Colonial America bent a knee once or twice in its pews.

The prim brick church now sitting in the circle is the third incarnation of St. Anne's. The city fathers asked that the town clock be installed in the steeple, presumably because they figured it could give guidance to the bell keeper about exactly when he should ring out the hour.

This mattered in those days because pocket watches were uncommon and regular folks needed to know the time. It might have been a fine arrangement in the 19th century, and perhaps for much of the 20th, but in recent years things have run amok.

The bell would peel out randomly, but never within reasonable proximity to the top of the hour or the half-hour. Sometimes it would strike the correct number of times -- say, ringing six times at 6:12 p.m. -- but other times there was utterly no relationship between the hour and number of strokes.

It wasn't those mismatches -- say, ringing four times at nine minutes past noon -- but the half-strokes that led to my mad-monk theory. There was a certain drunken quality when the bell chimed out several strong strokes and then finished with a halfhearted effort closer to a thud than a dong.

So, when the bell began creating an enormous, reckless clatter Friday, it came time to meet the mad monk. As I walked into the church tower, he was being brutally sacrificed on the altar of technology.

The murderers were a tall man with a frown and a screwdriver and a short man with a smile. Both wore blue. Since neither has been formally charged, I can't tell you their names.

What's with the bells, I demanded to know, and what have you done with the mad monk?

They played dumb at first, but they owned up after I explained that I knew all about the mad monk and his crazy bells. He's gone, they said. The tall guy was the bell repairman. The short guy said that from now on, the bell would be rung by a computerized system coupled to a GPS receiver that would make it so accurate that I could set my watch by the chime.

Tethered to technology, the bell now rings on time. But without the mad monk, it plays a mournful tone to my ear.

-- Ashley Halsey, staff writer

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