On Tuesday, March 30, we remembered the great English priest, poet, essayist, and preacher John Donne in our calendar of saints. His words have been on my mind a lot lately, along with Dame Julian of Norwich. Both of them wrote beautiful, uplifting words in a time of war and plague. It struck me how much we can learn right now from the wisdom of those who lived through the sweep of pandemic all those centuries ago.
Donne was stricken in November, 1623, with what was termed a “relapsing fever,” so-called because it often seemed to ease, only to come back as the patient seemed to be recovering and kill him or her. For twenty-three days the poet lay on what he thought was his death-bed, but despite his fear, he pulled himself together enough to ask for writing materials and began recording a meditation a day on life, death, and God, which he later published as Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions the following year. These meditations are neglected masterpieces, and can be read for free online.
Donne’s uplifting message in Meditation XVII, even as he lay deathly ill, was inspired by hearing a church bell toll nearby, which communicated that someone had died. Deaths were so common then from plague and other illnesses such as typhus that sometimes the bells would be rung even before the person had actually died. In his fevered state, Donne perhaps wondered if the bell was ringing for him, and he simply had not been told he was near death. The relief he no doubt felt as he survived that ringing of the bell then led him to express the deep truth of our interconnectedness to each other. Meditation XVII began this way:
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 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.
As in-person worship has now been shut down for at least two more months in my diocese, our embodiment of unity and interconnectedness as a praying people and as a faithful community has become ever more important. The parishes may be closed, but the Church has been deployed, as a popular meme going around the internet challenges us. We have been fasting from Eucharist by necessity, and yet our spiritual communion nonetheless calls us together to re-member our love and common bonds across physical distance. As Donne notes, spiritually, our common heritage as children of God calls us to share each other’s joys and burdens. He urges us to take literally the idea that we are all joined together as members of the Body of Christ.
Rather than despair about himself as he lay fearfully ill, Donne’s first thoughts were not about himself, but about his relationship with others, especially the deceased, whom he did not know. He started with the truth that every single person is abundantly beloved by God. In our own time, the cultivation of empathy which this current pandemic can nurture within our culture will not only slow the spread of the disease to us, but to those around us whom we probably will never know.
This is precious balm for our souls as we ourselves are facing the surge of this illness. We are all only as healthy as the most ill person among us. This is not only a statement of enlightened self-interest. This is not only a goad for us to return to the ideals of the common good and civic virtue that has been in reality a far-too-elusive goal throughout our history. Perhaps we can learn how spiritually toxic and physically damaging our delusion that we are not actually dependent upon some of the most overlooked and undervalued people in our society, especially the care-givers, the nurses, the teachers, the grocery and pharmacy workers, the sanitation workers and food-service workers, among others.
Donne’s words reveal an incarnational truth for us right now, nearly 500 years later. They are grounded in the idea that we are all made in the image of a God who loves us enough to come into our history in Jesus and to live, teach, suffer, and die for each and every one of us.
In my sermon for last week, I shared these famous words from later in Donne’s brief meditation:
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 any manner of thy friends 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.
Perhaps this pandemic can remind us to remember how radically inclusive Jesus’s vision is, the same dream that God has had for us from creation onward. One of raising us to new life and new communion with God, with each other, with all creation.
Just as Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, so we can be raised to new life too, starting right now. We share a common breath given to us by God. The heart of Jesus’s message, contrary to what we see represented in popular culture, is not self-centeredness, but community—community rooted in abundant grace, abundant mercy, abundant hope and faith in each other. Abundant life through love in action for those we know and do not know. And our lives right now depend on cultivating those attitudes, on scrupulously avoiding anything that might harm another, not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of the most vulnerable among us.
If any of us is injured, we all suffer. We share a common life. That’s what communion is really all about. May we see in each other the beautiful, tender face of Christ, and continue to lift each other up and care for each other, rejoice with each other, mourn with each other, and stand with one another. We are all one.
The photo was taken by the author; bell tower of Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.