Wednesday, June 11, 2014

For Whom The Bell Tolls

The Byzantine church of Agia Sophia, at Kampos, Ikaria.
 “… never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
~ from Meditation XVII, by John Donne

The above words (part of John Donne’s, Meditation XVII, published in 1624), were the first thing that came to mind when I woke up early one recent morning to the tolling from the solitary bell attached to the belfry of the Byzantine church of Agia Sophia, in Kampos, Ikaria. The mournful toll of the bell, at intervals of 4-5 seconds each, announced the passing of a local islander. More to the point, because the Ag. Sophia church was being used to bring notice of the death to the surrounding community, it meant that someone in Kampos (or a relative of someone in the village), had died.

John Donne
Like most people familiar with the above quote, I had never given much thought to those lines from John Donne. I was knew them to the extent that I knew the writer Ernest Hemingway had quoted Donne for the title of his 1940 book, For Whom The Bell Tolls. I also understood that the phrase, and the larger passage it comes from, is one of the most quoted of John Donne’s writings, and that it refers to death and loss, and the interconnections between the living and the dead. Here is the full paragraph:

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.

Until I woke to the sound of the tolling bell, I had assumed the custom had long since slipped out of usage, and that other more modern means of informing people of someone’s passing must surely now be in use. But of course, I was wrong.

I must admit that I was not prepared for the emotional impact the tolling bell had on me. The older I get, and the closer I get to my own demise, the more I am conscious that the clock is ticking, and that time is slowly running out. Not just for me, but for all of us. While no one wants to be reminded of this obvious fact, and while most of us are happy to ignore the obvious as much as possible, the solitary tolling of the church bell, was a stark reminder that life is short. So, don't ask "...for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."

More Information
Gutenberg: John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions…

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