December 2017 / January 2018 - Vol. 95

                  standing inside Jerusalem church

Meditation 17:

For Whom the Bell Tolls and No Man Is an Island .
by John Donne

Note: John Donne wrote a series of meditations called, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and several steps in my sickness. They were written in December 1623 as Donne recovered from a serious but unknown sickness. Having come close to death, he described the illness he had suffered from and his thoughts throughout his recover with "near human speed and concentration." Meditation 17 is considered one of his most memorable pieces of prose and verse.

Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris (Now this bell, tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou
must die.)

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Perchance, he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and
perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see
my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is catholic, universal,
so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action
concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted
into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all
mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of
the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God
employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war,
some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our
scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As
therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the
congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near
the door by this sickness.

There was a contention as far as a suit (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation,
were mingled), which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it
was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of
this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that
application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is.

The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute
that this occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun
when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his
ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is
passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No Man Is an Island

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a
clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if
a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am
involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not
miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the
misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a
treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured
and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in
a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he
travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it,
except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick
to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but
this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this
consideration of another's danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by
making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.  

Brief bio:

John Donne (1572-1631) was a metaphysical poet and clergyman from London, England. He was one of the most influential poets of the Renaissance. He was just as famous for his witty cutting poetry as he was for his enthralling sermons. John was born to a prominent Roman Catholic family from London in 1572. Not a healthy child, John Donne would lead a life plagued with illness.

He received a strong religious upbringing until his enrollment at the University of Oxford at the age of 11. After only three years at Oxford it is believed that he transferred to the University of Cambridge for another three years of study, never obtaining a degree at either college. In 1590 John made a decision that would shape his life: he converted to Anglicanism.

[bio source]

A commentary on the meditation:

In this two-paragraph meditation, Donne meditates upon the sounding of a church bell signifying a funeral and connects it to his own present illness. He wonders if the person is aware that the bell has sounded for him. (Obviously, if someone is dead, he does not know and it is too late for him to meditate upon it.) Donne then applies the idea to himself, using the bell to become aware of his own spiritual sickness, and to everyone else by noting that the church is a universal establishment. Every human action affects the rest of humanity in some way. The church’s universality comes from God, who is in charge of all “translations” from earthly to spiritual existence which occur at death. Although God uses various means to achieve this changeover, God is nonetheless the author and cause of each death. Donne also compares this death-knell to the church bell calling the congregation to worship, as both bells apply to all and direct their attention to matters more spiritual than material.

Donne uses an interesting image when he considers how God is the “author” of every person and every death: “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.” Whether a man dies of old age, in battle, from disease or accident, or even through the actions of the state dispensing its idea of justice, God has in a sense decided the terms of each death. As universal author, God will bind together these various “translated” pages, each man a chapter, into a volume which is open to all. In the new universal “library” of mankind, “every book shall lie open to one another.” Yet all of this imagery takes up only one sentence, and Donne returns in the next sentence to the meaning of the bell.

Donne also recounts how the various religious orders disagreed about which group should be given the privilege of ringing the first bell calling everyone to prayer; the decision was made to allow the order which rose first in the morning to ring that bell. Again Donne connects this to the death-knell and urges himself and his readers to take its imminence into account when deciding what to do each day. After all, the bell really tolls for the person who has the ears to hear it.

At the opening of the second paragraph, Donne returns to his idea that “no man is an island,” indicating that everyone is connected to every other human being in some way. Just as dirt and sand clods are part of the European continent, so too is each man part of the entire human race; the removal of a clod diminishes the continent, and the removal of a human life diminishes mankind. Since every death diminishes the rest of mankind in some way, when the bell tolls for a funeral it tolls in a sense for everyone.

Donne concludes by stating that his meditation is not an effort to “borrow misery,” since everyone has enough misery for his life. He does, however, argue that affliction is a treasure in that it causes men to grow and mature; therefore we inherit wisdom from perceiving another’s suffering. Although a man may not be able to make use of that wisdom himself as he suffers and dies, those who observe it can better prepare themselves for their own fate.

(commentary source]

top photo: Eternal Believer, photo taken in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem  by Nadav Dov Boretzki
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