“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.”
It must be clarified that these famous, poetic and thought-provoking words of John Donne were not originally written as a poem. The phrase is in fact taken from 'Meditation 17' of his reflective prose, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions published in1624; and it is preceded by the famous aphorism, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….”
That which is unique and fascinating about Donne's statement is the brilliant and artistic use of simple imagery to convey a very powerful and touching message. To better understand his phrase and appreciate its beauty, we need to familiarize ourselves with three key dictions: diminish, bell and of course toll which is this reflection's point of departure.
It is worth mentioning here that there are three basic ways in which church bells are resounded or rung, namely: normal ringing, chiming and tolling.
'Normal ringing' denotes the sounding of a church bell in the familiar way, usually at a rate of about one ring per second with the bell rotating back and forth to echo the traditional 'ding-dong' sound calling the faithful to worship; it is the sort of sound we hear before the commencement of normal morning church services, particularly Sunday services.
'Chiming' refers to the ringing of usually two or more bells in a more musical series or repetitious rhythmic patterns. This kind of melodic sound is used to herald and mark the celebration of an extremely joyous occasion such as the naming, baptism and/or confirmation of a person, and the resurrection of Christ; it is also the sort of sound the church bells emanate in the early hours of New Year's Day. In brief, a 'chiming' sound is usually used to mark a new beginning or the beginning of a new life.
'Tolling', unlike 'chiming', refers to the slow ringing of a bell, usually at a rate of about once every five to fifteen seconds; the slow pace and the lack of jubilance and liveliness evoke a feeling of sadness. This type of ringing is used to mark the end of an event; and it is most often associated with death.
As members of the Catholic Church and what I call the traditional protestant faiths such as the Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc. may be aware, a church bell tolls when the remains of the departed are carried or about to be conveyed into a place of worship for a requiem (funeral mass or service).
During Donne's time, it was a common tradition, when a bell started tolling, for people to send servants or messengers to enquire for whom it was tolling; in other words, to find out the person whose demise was necessitating the tolling of the bell, or whose funeral service was taking place, if they didn't already know.
As a matter of fact, the practice of asking or sending to know for whom a church bell tolls, still persists in many rural communities in Ghana and other parts of the world. In my native towns of Offinso-Mpehi(n) and Offinso-Maase where over 85% of the population is Catholic for instance, it is very common for people to ask neighbours or members of their families to know who the deceased is when the Roman Catholic Church bell starts tolling if they are not aware of any funeral service taking place that day.
Familiar with this tradition as an Anglican clergyman, Donne wrote to convey the important message that we do not need to know who a deceased individual is before we show concern or before their death impacts our life; and that the death of any human being (whether known or unknown, family member or outsider, friend or enemy) should not only 'diminish' or humble us but should also remind us of and induce us to reflect on our own impending death.
He stresses that if we are able to view the passing of a person (irrespective of who they are to us) as our own demise, we would not even need to ask or “send to know for whom the bell tolls”, as it would, in essence, be tolling for us. His message is simple: When the bell tolls for one human being, it tolls for all humankind because we all will respond to the same call.
The above-presented philosophy of John Donne is obviously inspired by his clear realization of the absolute interdependence and connectedness of humans irrespective of colour, race, nation, ethnicity or tribe; a belief possibly inspired by 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31 and/or Romans 12: 4-5 where the human body is used to illustrate the interrelationship of the members of Christ's body, the Church.
In exactly four weeks' time, the church bell will be tolling to mark the end of the earthly life of a very special person – a humble giant; a man who for the sins of humankind will carry a titanic wooden cross to Calvary and be crucified. Like many other folks, you may not know who the individual for whom the bell will be tolling on the 18th of April 2014 really is; and sending to establish who he is on that day will be a reasonable but probably less beneficial effort.
This is because you may disbelieve even if his real identity is communicated to you; you may question his messiahship and salvific mission if his modest earthly background is reported back to you; and you may struggle to comprehend how the carrying of a cross and his crucifixion could save or be the culmination of the salvation of humankind. But one thing about him that will be infinitely clear, be witnessed by people from all walks of life, and will provoke the tolling of the bells, is his Death.
Therefore if you allow his death to diminish or humble you and induce you to reflect on your being, you will realize the need to prepare adequately for your own impending death. I assure you, in your efforts to know how to satisfactorily prepare for your own departure into eternity, you will come to know and understand the Humble Giant profoundly, and have all your pessimisms about him and his mission on earth transformed into optimisms.
Let us, as humans, zealously challenge the cultural mantra of 'how I live my personal life is none of anybody's business', as what impacts one impacts others. There is no act of a human entity (not even the most personal or private of deeds) that does not in some way affect other human beings.
May this Lenten festivity draw us closer to the Supreme Being than ever before; and like the Roman Centurion (Mark 15:39, Matthew 27:54), may the death of the Humble Giant, Christ, reveal more about Him to us than His life ever did. Amen.
Emmanuel Sarpong Owusu-Ansah (Black-Power) is an investigative journalist, educator, and a researcher. He may be contacted via email: [email protected]