Ask not for whom the bell tolls

— Midweek Meditations:
thoughts, inspiration and encouragement
from ACF community members —

We have a small ritual in our house at the end of the day. At bedtime, I will sometimes say to the children „Ask not for whom the bell tolls…“they will then reply „ tolls for thee.“ They will then go off to bed, or more often than not, open a process of protracted negotiation.

These little phrases have, for a long time, been just something to say to mark the end of a day, but Sunday’s readings reminded me of the poem they come from. It was written by John Donne, a Catholic at a time under the first Queen Elizabeth and King James when Catholicism was illegal in England. He was therefore an early and maybe a reluctant convert to Anglicanism, but went on to become a priest and eventually the Dean of St Paul’s. The poem‘s first line is another very recognizable phrase, and reminds us that we are all one church, and one humanity: No man is an island.

On Sunday we heard Paul, in his letter to the Romans, say something very similar:

…none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone.

If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Romans 14:7-8

To switch the metaphor, we are a small piece of a very large jigsaw puzzle. So when, 400 or so years ago, a doleful bell rang out, John Donne was encouraging his readers not to think “I wonder who that funeral bell is ringing for? Maybe I’ll be really sad when I find out” but simply accept that because a human being has died, then a little piece of all of us all died with them, whether they were a friend or not. Of course, Donne puts it better than this, so here is the poem in full:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each 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 thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

John Donne

So I pray that whatever we are feeling,
whether it be sorrow, or anguish, hope or joy,
we may all be one in Christ.
Sharing each other’s burdens,
and rejoicing in each other’s gladness.
Because in Christ, none of us is an island.

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