For Whom This Bell Tolls…

Engraving from Thomas More's 'Utopia'

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.

I have written this brief I intro to the meditation below to give a little background to his devotional. John Donne (1572-1631) wrote this work, which is divided into 23 chapters—each chapter a reflection representing a day in his bout with a serious illness (1623), possibly Typhus. On day 17, he wrote a Meditation XVII which has become one of his most famous writings because of two memorable phrases: “for whom the bell tolls,” and “no man is an island.” One day Donne heard a funeral bell ringing from a church and began to muse on his own sickness and mortality. He believed that everyone’s suffering is shared by all and should be instructional in helping each person face his own affliction. He believed that death is a “translation” from one realm of existence to a heavenly one. In death, a chapter is not torn from the book of humanity, but is “translated” into a new and better language. He believed that the funeral bell tolling one’s death, at the same time, should call us to worship and to matters of ultimate importance. Just as the bell that calls members of a religious order to prayer is rung by those who rise earliest, so the funeral bell rings for those who are able to hear it’s deeper meaning. He also believed that our connection to one another is like the soil that makes up a continent. When some of the soil erodes and washes away making the continent smaller, so the death of each person diminishes all of humanity. The wisdom gained from the sufferings and death of others is like a treasure for those who recognize it and will help make us more fit to live out the years that God gives to us. How appropriate these words are in the age of COVID-19: that we are closely connected to one another; that every person’s death is not a statistic but something which really does diminish us; that even in the face of suffering and death, we are called to find value in affliction and to make sure we find our recourse (source of help) in God, “who is our only security.” 



Now this bell tolling softly for another,
says to me, Thou must die.

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 ingraffed 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, 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 that 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,  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 neighbors.  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 afflicion 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 moneys, 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 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. 

Donne, John. The Works of John Donne. vol III.
Henry Alford, ed.
London: John W. Parker, 1839. 574-5.