Sermon: John Donne

by Isaac Oliver

The Very Reverend John Donne whom we celebrate today died on March 31, 1631.  His early career saw him as an aspiring government official and womanizer, but it would seem that somewhere along the way, he discovered God.  Later, at the bidding of King James I, Donne would enter Holy Orders, being ordained a priest in 1615 and rising to Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  His first biographer, Isaac Walton, said that “he had been a Saul… in his irregular youth [and had] become a Paul, and preach[ed] salvation to his beloved brethren.”   He was truly one of the great poets and preachers of his time.  Of all his writings, it is Meditation #17 which is most familiar.  It begins with him hearing the church bell toll, announcing the death of another:

“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.”

Donne twists the story, and in an almost humorous way proposes that the bell that is ringing, and unbeknownst to him, just might be for him, suggesting that a dead person does not know that they are, in fact, dead.  He continues:

“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.”

When any of us die, we are all diminished, because even though we are many we are one body.  So the tolling bell really is for us all.  We’ve all died a little in the death of another.  He continues:

“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.”

Using the analogy of a book, we each make a chapter, and the absence of anyone’s chapter makes for an incomplete book.  And it is God who is the author of it all.  When we die, we are not lost, just written anew.  He concludes by telling us that when we hear the bell toll, we should be reminded of our own death and in being reminded, turn toward God, that He might see us through it all and into his heavenly kingdom.

Whether intentional or not, the meditation is in a sense autobiographical.  Through his life and the troubles he experienced and witnessed, Donne understood the greater calling, the service of God, and how we are all called to take heed to our own lives in relation to our God.

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