Part 25 in a series; see other parts here.
Sometimes life closes in, and we feel very small, like isolated atoms bouncing through an indifferent universe. We sense time passing on toward the moment when it will cease to matter for us. We begin to doubt that anyone or anything will truly hear us, however far our cries may carry.
“Send not, therefore, to ask for whom the bell tolls,” John Donne famously wrote: “It tolls for thee.” The sound of church bells reminded Donne that he, too, would die, and this knowledge stirred in him a sense of connection to all of humanity, who, for all that divides us, are united in our mortality. Church bells call us into communion.
In Donne’s England, church bells were nearly ubiquitous, and a century earlier had been even more so, before Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, those “bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” Now there are fewer bells, both literal ones and the metaphorical ones that remind us of our common humanity.
In times of deep darkness, when not even the light of the stars is enough to show us the way forward, prayer stretches out our ears toward the church bells whose music runs like golden threads through the fabric of the cosmos. Catching the thread pulls us out of isolation and back into community. We find the courage from God knows where to keep facing a world that seems unbearable—and not only facing it, but working in God’s name to heal the awful sorrow that can at times seem like its very being. The tune that the bells chime is love, and prayer is how we learn to hear it, and how we begin, molecule by molecule, to become it.