No Man is an Island

John Donne

Recently, Oli and I attended a clergy study day. The visiting speaker was the priest and poet Rev Michael Guite (his Palm Sunday sonnet is reproduced later in this newsletter). During one of the sessions, Rev Michael reminded us that London has seen many diseases pass through it in the past, not just Covid-19. One famous Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral was the poet John Donne, who lived through several waves of the plague in the 1620s. John Donne remained committed to his city and the cathedral and did not try and leave despite frequently falling ill. On one occasion, when he was unwell and believed he was dying he heard the bells ringing out, signifying that someone had died. For a moment, he thought the bells were ringing for him! From this experience, he penned the famous poem, Meditation 17, which has these well-known words: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… 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.” What John Donne noticed is that humans don’t exist in isolation. We are not islands, we are all connected. And what this means is that the misfortune or even death of someone else impacts all of us. When one person suffers, all suffer. The loss of one person is a sadness for everyone and diminishes all of humanity.

These wise words from a wise man might speak to us at the time of this coronavirus outbreak. Despite our isolation and social distancing, this crisis is highlighting just how connected and dependent on each other we all are. Those of us who stay at home are doing so to relieve pressure on our health service and to protect our most vulnerable. The statistics about cases and deaths which we might have felt numb to or unconcerned by some weeks ago, now relate to people around us in our own networks of friends, families, colleagues and neighbours. And so we commit ourselves into God’s hands (into God’s “security”, says John Donne), remembering the Easter message that not even death can separate us from God’s life and love, and with generosity and courage do our bit to fight the virus that affects each and every one of us.

David Maclure