For whom the bell tolls – A word for Ash Wednesday

bell

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That’s the somber reminder of Ash Wednesday.

“To dust you shall return” wasn’t the original intention for humanity, of course. At the crowning moment of creation, “God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”[note]Gen 2:7 –– special note: This is not meant in any way to bias genders. The woman’s creation is every bit as much a crowning moment (some have argued more). But I’m talking about dust here…[/note] God only speaks those second words––“to dust you shall return”––as he later details the consequences of the man’s sin. The wages of sin is death…

At Ash Wednesday, and then throughout these forty days of Lent, we’re invited to take special account of our mortality and sinfulness. It’s a season of fasting. We fast when we recognize that things are not right. Throughout the Scriptures, people fast when they’re in danger, afraid, grieving, or have recognized their sinfulness.

John Donne’s famous piece below is fitting for the season. He wrote this in 1623 while recovering from a serious illness. The bell he refers to is a funeral bell.

Donne’s work reminds of two things:

  1. We may have judged our own state better than it is––“Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him.”[note]Donne wrote before gender-inclusive language. I’m sure he would have written more inclusively had he written this today.[/note]
  2. Our lives are all wrapped up in each other. No one is an island. This is what Donne means when he says we need not ask for whom the bell tolls, “it tolls for thee.”––“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.

I had to read this slowly and carefully to understand and appreciate. It was worth the effort…

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From Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation #17 by John Donne

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 head 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.

[…]

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.

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