We, in the twenty-first century, rarely hear church bells in our neighborhoods, if ever. Noise ordinances silence or reduce the volume of church bells, whether from century old bells or electronic surrogates. Typically, it’s a matter of neighborhood negotiation embodied in formal local ordinances or informal agreements; though, sometimes it rises to the federal courts where churches have found protection under the Constitution’s free exercise clause. However, these bells used to call us to consider higher things than our personal peace and affluence.
This post’s title is the title of Meditation #17 from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne (1623.) Donne was touched by suffering and illness throughout his life. His meditation reflects his deep thinking on a topic that we desperately avoid, death. Researchers believe he had been penning this text while suffering from a deadly illness. The text says:
Perchance, he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and, [by some chance,] 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 (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) [as to] 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 does toll for him that thinks it does; and though it [discontinue for a time] again, yet from that minute that this occasion [worked] 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, 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 [house] of thy friend’s or of your 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 you.
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 neighbors. Truly it [would be] an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and [few have] enough of it. No man has 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.
To encapsulate Donne’s sentiment, we can say, perhaps: “All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume… 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 you… 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.”
If you have made God your Lord and Savior, consider, whether in illness or in health, that when the bell tolls, it tolls for you as well.