In my possession there is a little book entitled “Donne’s Devotions.” He was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, and was born in 1572 and died in 1631. One of his most important poems was “Batter my heart three person’d God.” It’s well known.
But it is his little book of devotions that has most influenced me. It’s been with me for years. I found it in a second hand bookshop in Canterbury. My copy was published in 1841, so it’s quite old and has had to have a little repair work done on it from time to time. The last renovation was two days ago on 6th March. The front cover had departed from the main body of the book. Naturally a few hours after gluing the cover to the rest I read a few pages.
One of the most familiar quotations in the book comes from chapter 17 on meditation.
“No man is an island entire of itself; very 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 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.”
That chapter 17 is a remarkable one. Donne wants to draw his readers to the significance of church bells.
“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.”
One of the lines that most moves me is this one. “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?
Last week we had one warm and sunny day. I was walking out across the dunes when the sound of the death bell for a funeral rang out across the Towans from the nearby parish church. (Here in Cornwall we refer to grass covered dunes as Towans.)
I stopped and listened, aware of the transitory impermanence of my life. Never had the scene appeared more beautiful than at that moment. In the distance the sea was blue in the sunshine.
Donne writes – “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 thereby that child is thereby connected to that Head, which is my head too, and engrafted into that body whereby 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 a book, but translated into a better language: and every chapter must be so translated. God employs many 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 of that library where every book shall lie open to one another.”