For whom the bell tolls

quote-ask-not-for-whom-the-bell-tolls-it-tolls-for-thee-john-donne-36-55-88

Almost 400 years ago, John Donne penned the words which became a modern proverb, and have proved with the passing of time to be prophetic as well:

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.
[Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII]

The language sits awkwardly on our modern ears, but the sentiments in this text from 1624 resonate with many of us alive today.

None of us are islands, complete and self-sufficient. From our shared genetic material to our cultural and social identities, we are part of a larger reality; the web of life.

When we lose one person from our community due to death, each of us has lost a part of ourselves. Even if we did not know the person. Even if we did not like the person.

In times past the bells of the village church would sound when someone was being buried. We still do that at Grafton Cathedral. Each time we conclude a funeral the Cathedral bell tolls.

“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls,” says Donne. “It tolls for you!”

Just before midday today the Cathedral bell will ring continuously for twelve minutes. The same thing will be happening at other cathedrals and churches around the country.

Today the tolling of the bell is not to mark the death of a local person, but to alert us to the imminent death of our Mother: Planet Earth.

This date has been chosen because it is the point in the year when we exceed the capacity of the earth to provide or replenish the energy we are consuming by our lifestyle choices.

If this trend continues, the “overshoot day” will occur earlier in the year. If we begin to make a positive difference then the overshoot day will move closer to 31 December.

We are each diminished by the failing health of the planet, and we are each called to action in the brief window of opportunity that remains for us to reverse the sustained depletion of the Earth, whose children we are and without whom we have no future.

The well-being of our fragile blue planet is a challenge for us all, but it evokes a passionate response from people of faith.

Christians, Jews and Muslims all understand ourselves to have been placed in the world to serve and nurture creation. Many other religions also promote a deep respect for—and a profound sense of affinity with—nature. Some theologians have even urged us to see the world as the body of God, and many ordinary people with little time for organised religion describe profound experiences of the ‘holy Other’ as their hearts are touched by the beauty and the complexity of nature.

Today the bell of your Cathedral will be tolling to call us to action. One minute of bell ringing for each of the 12 years left during which time we may yet turn things around.

Without a healthy and sustainable planet, we are not just diminished; we are doomed. But it is not yet too late to turn things around. As we save the planet we rescue our future.

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton and Rector of the Anglican Parish of Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. The opinions expressed in my publications, including my blog posts, are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Diocese of Grafton nor Christ Church​ Cathedral in Grafton.
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