Tuesday, November 29, 2005
No man is an island
“No man is an island entire of itself…everyone’s death diminishes me…” or words to that effect. The great Anglican divine and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral London, John Donne (1572-1631) wrote these words in a famous meditation. The actual text is from Meditation number XVII and reads more fully: “No man is an island, entire of itself; 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, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." See http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/donnebib.htm for a full index of all his works. To meditate on death is indeed a sobering thing to do. Those, like Donne, just at the beginning of the early modern age, knew death at first hand. Life expectancy then was very short indeed. In many of his poems, as indeed in the poems and writings of other contemporary authors, the reality of death was never really very far away. For all the truth in Donne’s writings, there is yet a dimension of life he has not explored – namely that the death of others can add much to our lives in a mysterious and strange way if only we have the insight to explore that hidden and eclipsed dimension of death. That’s easy, of course, for me to say from the security of our existence under the protective and often shallow crust of modern society of the twenty-first century. Today, when we meditate on the death of those we love we try to see their leaving us as a celebration of all the good in their lives. We can’t fault John Donne for the preoccupations and dark beliefs of his era – he lived in pre-medical times as it were! So the deaths of our loved ones can expand our horizons, can give us strength to live life more fully and make us thank God or whatever “benign” force lies behind this wonderful, if at times, cruel universe. From the deaths of all my loved ones I have learned about the great sacrifices of love – especially from my grandmother, Phoebe St Ledger, who when she married my grandfather Patrick Brophy, gave birth to 12 healthy children and lost three or four, perhaps more. I remember as a young boy praying by her deathbed and touching her ice-cold marble hands. From my Uncle Pat’s death I learned the great value of generosity and the great value of good humour. From the death at a very young age of my Uncle John, I learned the supreme courage and good humour of a man who could face blindness, several amputations and finally death with great acceptance and serenity. Then, there was the death of Uncle Jim 12,000 miles away in New Zealand – from this I learned the value of following your dream wherever it might lead. From the death of my grand-aunt Annie I learned the courage of persistence and resilience. There are so many things we can learn, not just from their deaths, but also most especially from their lives. Most people leave this world as they have lived their lives in it – I think that is essentially true. I could go on listing all the people I know who have died. However, I shan’t bore the reader with such details. Rather I shall finish with a little reflection on the death of my own father, Thomas Francis Quinlan (1913-1993): Thank you Thomas for the gift of my life, for your gentle presence, for providing for us to the best of your ability, for suffering the ills that life meted upon you without complaint, for the courage you showed as you went on your final journey of death, for kissing all good bye with “I love you” on your lips and ours, and for your beautiful last words: “It’s such a lovely day!” The picture I include with this post is one I took three years ago, and it depicts the island called "Ireland's Eye", off Howth Harbour. Beannacht leat a scrbhinn.