‘No one is an island’ is a phrase that has been echoing round my mind for a while now. It echoes through all the talks, votes, rifts of Brexit; it echoes in the tragedies of shootings and hatred; it echoes through the rumblings of every division about land, about borders, about sovereignty and empire; it echoes in every felt change of ecosystems and climates. Although this phrase was written nearly four hundred years ago, I am hearing it with renewed resonance this Lent (not least with the help of this song from Tenth Avenue).
I had forgotten the context in which Anglican priest poet John Donne (who died 31st March 1631) wrote this phrase. It appears in his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, a series of reflections written as Donne recovered from a near-fatal ‘sickness’. Donne writes about the first symptoms, the series of doctor’s consultations, the long hours of just lying there in pain, his medication, and his slow regaining strength. As someone who lives with a chronic (though by no means fatal) illness, I was fascinated and humbled by Donne’s gritty descriptions of the day to day realities of his condition and his wisdom in seeing every stage and aspect of an illness as a possible vehicle for God speaking to him in a particular, specific way. Donne reflects on his fear of death with a shocking honesty and as I re-read these Devotions I am constantly surprised by the unashamedly emotionally tumultuous tone of many of the meditations, expostulations and prayers. He reminds me to pray for my doctors, for their skill, for their doubts, fears and uncertainties. He reminds me to pray that every aspect of my illness will be an opportunity for surrender to God.
As Donne lay in his bed he could hear the bells of a church nearby. These bells formed the soundtrack of his illness, and became yet another vehicle for receiving God’s Grace. Hearing the ring of a single bell calling the congregation to a funeral forced Donne to reflect upon his own fear of death and his hopes of eternity. He knows that the bell could be sounding his own funeral, so in a series of imaginative prayerful acts (remarkably like the compassionate practice of Tonglen) he wonders about the life and death of the person who died; and about the lives, hopes and fears of all those who, like him, are listening to this same bell. Donne thanks God that the sound alone acts as a reminder to contemplate his Saviour in every aspect of his passing life and his approaching death.
As I write this, sitting in my own bed, I can hear the sound of sirens from the Ambulance station next door, and these have become my modern day equivalent of Donne’s church bells. Every siren is a prompt for me to pray, ‘for all those involved in that situation’: the patients, the families, the clinicians, the paramedics, the friends, the hospital porters… As I pray for each contact, each ripple, each healing, I ask for the Spirit’s spreading, so that pain may become peace, brokenness become wholeness, fear become love. In Donne’s words, ‘this bell calls us all’.
No-one is an island, however alone and abandoned I may sometimes have felt. Yet Thomas Merton, in his reflections upon Donne’s phrase ‘no man is an island’, saw that if I cannot recognise the value of my own loneliness, I cannot respect nor respond to the needs of others. Merton reminds me it is only through solitude that I can hear how God loves me, that I can understand who I am in God’s eyes, that I can accept the freedom I have been given to be God’s beloved: ‘and the more each individual develops and discovers the secret resources of his own incommunicable personality, the more he can contribute to the life and the weal of the whole.’ (‘The Inward Solitude’, No Man is an Island) Merton is insistent that ‘charity cannot be what it is supposed to be as long as I do not see that my life represents my own allotment in the life of a whole supernatural organism to which I belong’. (Prologue to No Man is an Island)
So even in my bed, even when I may not have any contact with a stranger (in person or on-line) for days and weeks on end, still, I remain connected to the whole of Creation. As a child of the Creator, even how I think of myself, in my moments of solitude and honesty before my God, and even how I treat myself, has ripples and repercussions: because I am connected.
If I become embittered, disgruntled, ungrateful, that will have an effect on how I treat every soul with whom I come into contact.
If I do not love myself, if I do not realise how connected I am within the loveweb of God’s cosmos, how can I show love to any other, even to those I do not see in the flesh?
If I refuse to love myself, how can I tell another of where to find that One called Love; how can I encourage them in turn to love the next creature they contact?
If I refuse to love myself, how can I build Kingdom one relationship at a time? As Merton writes,
Every other man is a piece of myself, for I am a part and a member of mankind… Solitude, humility, self-denial, action and contemplation, the sacraments, the monastic life, the family, war and peace – none of these make sense except in relation to the central reality which is God’s love living and acting in those who He has incorporated in His Christ. Nothing at all makes sense, unless we admit, with John Donne, that: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” (Prologue to No Man is an Island)