Monday, September 26, 2011

No Man Is An Island: The Great Lesson of Friendship from John Donne

Rachelle and I are standing before the church that one of my direct maternal ancestors, John Donne, served as Dean (pastor) from 1631 to 1641. The church is St. Paul's Cathedral in London, England and is an iconic symbol of English Anglicanism. Princess Charles married Diana here before a world-wide television audience in 1981. Three state funerals have been held in St. Paul's, Lord Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), The Duke of Wellington Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965). This week the Queen made known the state's desire to give former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher the fourth state funeral and burial at St. Paul's. The church was originally built of wood in A.D. 604 in the spot that the massive marbel and stone cathedral now stands, beautifully constructed in 1669 by renowned architect Christopher Wren.

Many Americans know little about John Donne, but Rachelle and I, along with our friends Kyle and Carol, were all afforded free entrance and a personal escort within the cathedral when the staff were told of my lineage. In addition, though photographs are forbidden in the cathedral, the staff gave permission for my wife to take my photograph alongside the iconic John Donne monument (see picture to the right). The John Donne statue is the only monument in St. Paul's to survive the Great London Fire of 1666 unscathed. Though one can still see the black scorch marks of the great fire at the base of the marble, the statue of Donne himself is intact. It seems that John Donne is as iconic to the learned British as the cathedral itself. King James I convinced my ancestor to become the pastor of St. Paul's, even though Donne sought to avoid the Anglican priesthood. John Donne had a very effective pastoral ministry and was considered the finest preacher St. Paul's has ever had (that assessment comes from the senior guide of St. Paul's, not me). Interestingly, John Donne is probably better known for his poetry than his preaching, including the often quoted meditation, even in America, entitled "No Man Is An Island."

"No man is an island, entire of himself; 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 ...

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."

John Donne wrote the above Meditation XVII while he was deathly ill, still serving as pastor of St. Paul's. It was also during his time of illness that John posed in a death shroud for the sculptor who made the monument that now stands in St. Paul's. As John Donne lay ill, unable to serve his people, he would often hear the funeral bells at St. Paul's toll. He wondered who it was in his congregation that had died. The thought of death, including his own and those he loved, caused him to reflect upon friendship, Mankind, and death.

His renaissance thinking that "No Man Is An Island" unto himself is consistent with the teaching of Scripture. Life is all about relationship with God and with God's highest creation - human beings. I bear a great deal of physical resemblance to John Donne, but my desire is to bear even a closer resemblance to his philosophy of life.

Friendship is the greatest of all jewels, and God has blessed Rachelle and me with a treasure trove at Emmanuel, Enid and around the world.


Anonymous said...

My father loved poetry, and often quoted “…for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Wade, no wonder you are who you are.

You must have taken my aunt’s advice as every time we would leave she would say, “Remember who you are.”
Rex Ray

Johnny D. said...

Wade, that is pretty darn cool. I wish I could read that writing over John Donne's statue. Can you clue me in?

Ramesh said...

Wade, you have "inherited" good writing skills (from your maternal side) Geoffrey Chaucer and John Donne (and possibly others). said...

Thy Peace,

Chaucer is a great-grandfather (16 X). I have a book on the "Dunns" in America (my ancestors), and the linkeage to my great-great-grandmother Dunn to John Donne is, as far as I can tell, not as direct as Chaucers. Anyway, Chaucer is my great-grandfather (documented), and Donne's lineage to me is not as well documented by me, but the physical resemblance to my mom's side of the famly (and to me personally) is pretty stunning. said...

Also, Chaucer lived in the 1300's and Donne in the 1500's and early 1600's.

Ken Colson said...

Great historical info, thanks for sharing.

Christiane said...

some favorite lines from 'A Litany' by John Donne

" ... come
And re-create me. . . . .
that new-fashioned,
I may rise up from death
before I'm dead. "


Wade, I am happy for you and Rachelle that you had this opportunity. Thanks for sharing about your experience with us. John Donne, like my favorite Henry Vaughan, was one of the great English metaphysical poets.

Here is some of Vaughan's work:

"THE WORLD." by Henry Vaughan

'I SAW Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright ;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years
Driv'n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov'd ; in which the world
And all her train were hurl'd...."

Aussie John said...


It's interesting to me that in Francis Bacon's Friends And Associates,Constance M. Pott, includes my own ancestor, Francis Bacon, "It remains briefly to commend to the reader's notice the history of the Donne family, one of whom married a daughter of Edward Alleyne; another of whom was secretary to Bacon's warm friend, Lord Ellesmere. This John Donne rose to be Dean of St. Paul's and of course, a Poet."