February 10, 2016

An Ash Wednesday Meditation on Death

In 1624 John Donne, the poet and preacher, lay seriously ill in a house in London next to St. Paul's Cathedral of which he was the Dean. It was the custom, then, to toll the bell of the church whenever a member was dying. The bell called the faithful to prayer. First, though, each household or neighborhood had to send someone to the church to find out for whom the bell was tolling. Thus Donne wrote his famous meditation on death, an appropriate one for Ash Wednesday (or any other time).

Now, this bell tolling softly for another says to me: "Thou must die." Perchance he for whom the bell tolls 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 those 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, and so are all of her actions. All that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for the 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 in 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 ....

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 bells tolls. It tolls for thee.