For Whom the Bell Tolls
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each 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 thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
In moments of holy defiance, the seeming monotony of time and the absurdity of modern life, the world cracks wide open and the polychromatic splendor suffuses the whole of creation with the prismatic effect of God’s simple, penetrating light that shines in all things. Something pulls back the hazy veil, and a reality heretofore imperceptible comes upon us in radiant revelation. There is something beautiful beyond us that interpenetrates us and we participate in that lovely reality. Our contemporary mode of existence often lulls us into psychologizing all externalities as if there is only an interior me interacting with an exterior world. Such a bifurcation of reality must, of course, be judged as false. How can we reasonably claim we are separate from the world in which we participate? I’m not entirely convinced that we shouldn’t return again to the metaphysics of the venerable St. Dionysus the Aeropagite who observed that we are beings within Being united by the One who is Beyond-Being. If this is the case, reality is experienced in a complex nexus of relationships rather than a division between one being and another.
There is no final distance between beings participating in Being. A particle’s twin might be entangled across billions of light years at some other location in the universe, sharing the same moment. This might be a microcosmic analogy for those of us whose existence is experienced on a macrocosmic level, where we are entangled with each other in our very participation in Being. All things are connected in a way that does not negate space or time, and to be sure the individual is real while being bound to the other both in the substructure of existence where time and space evaporate and the transcendent unity that exists well above all individuals. What I find interesting about all of this is that scientists and metaphysicians, with all the magnificent force of genius and acuity of observation have strained to arrive at a truth that is readily available through empathy and intuition.
Perhaps this us why we are so moved by musicians and artists and poets – surely they too arrive at this vision of truth that is in keeping with the very best in science and philosophy, yet by stretching forth with different powers. John Donne could not have so mournfully touched on so lovely an axiom, ‘Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.’ if he was not gripped by a more powerful prior truth that he is involved with all of humanity. In the death and suffering of each individual he is diminished because he is bound with them in the same field of experience, united in a common struggle that will allow for no ultimate alienation between one soul and the next.
However, for some unknown reason understood only by God, our deep connection to him and all he has made is cloaked beneath a malevolent un-reality that feeds into the madness and deprivation that distorts our ability to perceive our intimate proximity to each other. When I write off someone else as a lost cause or as worthless, am I not doing the same to myself? When people are induced to all manner of cruelty, hatred, and violence against others (whether in thought or in deed, since such a distinction is meaningless), can they not see the self-loathing implicit in this? Can I? I do not think that Jesus told us to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves as a cleverly devised means of making us more moral or tolerant or tolerable. Rather, he was describing the only way reality, if there is to be any ultimate reality at all, can actually work. Only in the tender bonds between Maker and what is made and nearly limitless plenitude of relationships within the order of creation that this entails can anything be said to exist at all.
Much is made in some branches of Christian thought that the natural estate of humanity is both lowly and estranged from God and only an act of sovereign fiat or Divine condescension can change this. One could possibly concede that the unnatural state of humanity is such, but not in any way the natural state. We were made for much more than the un-reality under which we now languish. While it it true that we have been afflicted by a kind of contagion that only God can cure us of, it seems that insisting on a brute and lowly nature for humans is a radical indictment upon God. Can a good God possibly create anything that is not good? To answer yes is to concede a woeful view not only of creation itself but also the One who creates. No, it is more fitting to take God at his word when he pronounced his benediction on all creation after creating humanity by saying that it all was ‘very good.’ Of course, it is possible to experience a great deal of agonizing alienation from God while living in a world that has been, for a time, subject to decay and futility. This can be felt to such a degree that we might not even allow ourselves to contemplate that any such good exists at all, much less whether or not it will be realized at some point when God sets things to right. After all, in the present world, such as it is, children suffer purposelessly, the weak are prey for the strong, and the only perceptible order might reasonably be seen as a sort of perpetual chaos from which we cannot escape. So, sadly, many of us consign ourselves to this because it appears that there is no other way.
Yet, there is a profound rationality in a defiant faith. Only by faith is the veil torn asunder to reveal humanity as we truly are – good and radiant creatures who have merely lost their way and wander in the darkness – a darkness that cannot ultimately diminish the brilliance for which we were made and to which we will all eventually be restored. It is this audacious proposition that embraces both our current frailty and our ultimate indestructibility. The evils of sin and death and the monstrous powers that weaponized these against us might obscure this for a time, but their current dominance is passing, and has already been vanquished. These forces have no inherent power to annul God’s purpose in fashioning humanity; otherwise Christ could not have used so perverse an instrument as death to conquer death. In facing a criminal’s death, he sets the captives free. In hanging upon the cross, God showed himself to be human in all the inherent goodness being human entails, while paradoxically suffering under the pangs of our deepest evil. The goodness in Jesus was his own, and God-born and of such immeasurable power and light that darkness could not vanquish him or extinguish his glory. St. Athanasius said, in the fourth century that ‘God became man so that man would become God.’ Only false piety would demure from this or to shrink away to a dark corner under the cloak of a beguiling species of humility in response to the resplendent weight of what St. Peter tells us, namely, that we are, in Christ made to be participants in the Divine nature. Truly, the Creator-creature distinction will remain, yet no real distance can be allowed as we are drawn up into union with God. Surely, a true and humble piety embraces this far more astonishing truth: there will be no final chasm between God and humanity. He made us exceedingly good, and we ought to rejoice to see that good blossom into its ever-blooming perfection. How else can we confess with St. Paul that God ‘will be all in all’ if we do not muster the courage to acknowledge that he is uttermost within us, giving shape to the very us that makes us who we are?
I have probably ranged on too long of an excursus, but hopefully only to underscore a vital point: while our current experience in time and space might lead us to believe that God is not all in all, this can only be a distinction located in our experience; for God there is no such distinction. He does not undergo one Divine state to the next, and while the created order groans to throw off the shackles of futility, he observes creation as a completed act from first to last. For us, we must look beyond sight with a pugnacious faith that punches through every painful round until the victory is won and we also experience creation as God does – where he is uttermost and uppermost, which is to say all in all. If there is any righteous rage to belief it is of a character that refuses to be rebuffed from the transcendent truth that our last destiny is so lofty that it nearly makes us fools to embrace this as real given the present state of affairs.
Only when we are armed with this unflinching vision of our radiant nature will we have the courage to stare unblinking into the abyss of the present age and see both Creator and creation as good. Having a high view of God demands a high view of humanity. When we truly behold this through the eyes of faith we will see that regardless of how we might experience alienation from God or from each other, this is not the last word; otherwise God is neither all-good nor all-powerful and certainly not to be trusted. But, we need not give way to such despair, God did not spare any expense to lavish his goodness upon us. When we see all of creation, including every person in Christ we cannot abide any distance, because Christ has closed this forever. Perhaps when we allow ourselves to see humans as the God-like creatures they truly are we might have the audacity to enter into the sufferings of the world and to treat those who dwell in it with us as intimately related and of inestimable worth. We can then, like John Donne, gaze at the grotesque ugliness of death without fear and hear the bell tolling for us every time it sounds. Only when we embrace a vision of human radiance can we endure the ugliness of the world as it stands with indignation and assurance of ultimate victory. We can suffer with the child lost in the night and fear no terror, we can weep with the broken, and strike out our fists into the darkness with sanctified fury as ones who know and truly believe that Christ has done away with every affliction with which we are afflicted and that his undimmed goodness, and power, and immortality are ours.