John Donne’s Meditation XVII: No man is an island …
‘… all mankind is of one author, and is one volume. When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again … Therefore, the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all. But how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness … 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.’
Donne’s meditation on death is well known. He writes that God is the author of life and death of all humankind and expresses the idea that we humans do badly when isolated. Not only isolated from God, but from others as well. We all have a fundamental need to be part of a community in order to thrive. We are after all, ‘relational’ beings, made in the image of our Triune God. If no man is an island (apologies if the words from a previous century and culture offend contemporary sensitivities) – we are therefore all connected to our neighbour. Therefore, the joy and hopes of our neighbours – those in our community – reflect on us, and their fears and sorrows become ours.
This was, and is, the experience of many of the Residents at Fred Ward Gardens.
Throughout Lent, at Fred Ward Gardens (FWG) in our Bible Studies and weekly Communion Services, we explored what Christian courage and commitment looks like. As our familiar routine and life-style slowly imploded in March with a succession of ‘shutdowns’, these words of Donne seemed very close – but we were prepared, especially with the knowledge and deep confidence of our Christian courage and commitment. God was with us. As we reflect in this time now, when restrictions are slowly lifting, we can see where His hand has been. The following are two reflections from Jean and Margo.
A Reflection from Jean
As I heard the first news of the virus out of Wuhan and the wet markets, I recalled the city. It was the starting point of my trip on the Yangtze Kiang and the Three Gorges before the construction of the dam and the flooding. The humble dwellings clinging to the cliffs, the bodies floating past the boat, and men hauling
bags of coal onto barges.
China would now be suffering yet another catastrophe and with no mention of help or compassion, I prayed for their care and for a wise government response from Australia.
At this time, I also had childhood memories of an earlier epidemic in Australia – polio – and the fear it brought to families. Not just the medical and physical disfiguration but also the associated destructive discrimination, segregation and isolation. In that moment, I gave thanks that we all felt safe within the walls of Fred Ward Gardens and with our caring staff.
My understanding of Christian teaching is ‘God’s will be done’ and for us to be strong in His promises without necessarily asking for personal protection: confidence in the power of the presence of God would and does strengthen us. From the start and as the virus spread, I knew no fear. Rather than ask for ‘special treatment’ to survive a pandemic, we needed to strengthen the preparedness for its impact through governance and wise decisions and mercifully – God answered us.
Over the months I felt God’s guiding hand in my concern for residents who were bombarded by regular news bulletins and for those with dementia who were unable to comprehend the loss of family visits. However, despite these barriers, it has been a time of growth for our Christian community as God’s love and promise penetrated into our daily lives.
COVID-19 has made us spiritually stronger. For me it is in spending more time in thoughtful prayer, in reading and in more purposeful living. As we gradually come out of restrictions, we know that we will eventually celebrate the end in a thanksgiving Service with staff, management and residents together in the Chapel.
I believe that God has spoken to us through words and actions, and we are blessed in our Chaplain who brought us weekly readings and passages for reflection and prayer.
COVID-19’s lesson to us is that we can find unity through adversity to come closer to God. Through the Spirit of compassion, individuals became aware of the needs of others in distress. At this time, one person’s faith has been like a pebble thrown into a pool when the ripples move outwards to encompass the whole surface.
The weekly readings, passages for reflection and prayer that Jean refers to were a Morning and Evening Prayer Booklet. To keep Residents in community with God and each other, our Holy Week readings and reflections needed to be put into print because of ‘lockdown’, and so our simple 24-page booklet became a 50-page weekly Morning and Evening Prayer Booklet. All prayer was based on APBA daily prayers with a morning Gospel plus reflection and an evening psalm. These highly anticipated booklets became the mainstay of Christian connectedness – especially as Chapel Services and individual Room Communion were cancelled. Each week throughout the months we were in ‘lockdown’ a copy of the Morning and Evening Prayer booklet was personally handed to ‘regular’ Communicants and after a time, additional copies were printed as other Residents began to ask for their own copy.
A Reflection from Margo
Beginning – Complaining to myself about ABC news harping on about a virus widespread. Don’t watch it!
Suddenly, the word pandemic, epidemic, World War 1 ‘flu’. So many deaths, then and now!
Next – can’t ignore this.
The capable management came and isolation from the world and its contamination began. Space distancing, constant hand washing. No visitors but later, only limited visits half to one hour in room. No hugging.
Because of staff vigilance we felt very secure. Our folk who came to visit had to show flu certificates and temperatures were registered before a visit. Thank you God for phones and carers! We prayed constantly for all – especially our overseas staff and their relatives too.
One of my sons is very ill and I wondered if I would ever see him again. I also have an older sister in aged care who will soon go to God. I was diagnosed with acute leukaemia in June 2019 so I wondered if this was how God would take me. It was a vague feeling. Unreal. Vague and unreal only in that I could not speak
about the peace that I felt so I wrote ‘Going Home’ to share.
God said He’d never leave us
And never would forsake
So turn to Him and trust Him
When our lives He comes to take
For what our Lord has promised
A home ‘a door away’
Where there’s no pain or sorrow
Where we’ll forever stay
What comfort and protection
No war or illness there
Safely home with Jesus
Within His loving care
Our Chaplain is so supportive and has a great calming effect on all of us. Lots of prayer and encouragement too. Instead of brooding and thinking of tomorrow I have found many here who needed a laugh and reassurance. You receive as you give. As you pray and care for others, we are blessed and our own worries minimised.
This virus appears to be returning to Victoria.
How wonderful it is to ‘take it to the Lord in prayer’ knowing that outpouring of prayer is in the world to counteract the evil in it.
Donne spoke of not one human, being an island: that each is connected by and with neighbours. Even in COVID-19 lockdown, where FWG became an island within a sea of growing pandemic cases, and where individuals risked becoming isolated islands themselves with family visits cut and not all being able to conquer technology for zoom meetings, Christian nurturing together with Christ’s love and assurances saw many individuals grow spiritually and reach out to ‘love their neighbour’.
As one lady succinctly put it: ‘We are each an island, but nurtured by Christian love, we saw ourselves differently.’
by Reverend Debbie Mazlin
1. Donne, John, The Works of John Donne, Vol III (Henry Alford Ed., London: John W Parker, 1839), pp 574-575.