The Bell Rings

Posted by Dr. Wade Smith on

John Donne, a 17th century poet, cleric and dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London from 1621-1631, wrote “never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Donne is reflecting on the use of bells to announce the death of a fellow-citizen, reminding us that the loss of one member of our community impacts each of us.

The ringing of bells is deeply rooted in British culture. One British historian wrote that bells “provide the grand soundtrack to our historic moments, call out for our celebrations and toll sadly in empathy with our grief.”

It is not a stretch to suggest that the use of bells in our culture has its roots in Britain. Even today, church bells ring to mark the hour, to celebrate special occasions (wedding bells) and even to remember the dead. The Salvation Army rings bells each Christmas as a call for the community to support their work with the poor and hungry. In sports, bells are used to mark the beginning or end of a round or period. 

Recently, I had the privilege of ringing the bell at Norman Regional when I completed my chemotherapy treatment. It was a grand moment of celebration, thanksgiving and hope. After a series of six treatments over five months, it was time to celebrate. It was time to give thanks to the Lord, my family, friends, church, doctor and all the nurses in the infusion room. Finally, it was time to proclaim hope that “cancer-free” means not just today, but from this day forward. In that moment, the bell did indeed “toll for me,” but it also tolled for each person who has, and continues to be, part of my journey to healing. As Donne wrote in the same poem mentioned above, “No man is an island entire of itself.” 

In 1 Corinthians 12 the Apostle Paul reminds us that in Christ Jesus, we are all members of one another. Paul’s picture of the church being the “Body of Christ” is a beautiful metaphor, teaching us how inter-connected we are. “When one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.” Likewise, “when one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” God has so composed the Body that even in the midst of great diversity there should be no division within, that the members of the body may care for one another. 

Bells will ring today across cancer treatment centers marking the successful end of treatment. These bells will resound with joy, thanksgiving and hope. They will sound in honor of the incredible network of family, friends and professionals that have made the journey of healing possible. 

Yet, bells also will toll today at churches and cemeteries in grief and sadness for those who lost their battles with cancer. Families, friends and professionals will mourn the death of their loved one. They will wonder why their prayers were not answered and question why their loved one is not ringing a different bell on this day.

As the bells toll today, let us be reminded that in some way each bell tolls for us. We must suffer and grieve with those who suffer and grieve. We must celebrate and give thanks with those who celebrate and give thanks. We do not know why some find healing in this life and others must hope for healing in eternity.

What we do know is that the bells will keep ringing. And, for as long as we are able to hear those bells, let us be faithful to love and care for one another. As Donne reminds us, “the bell tolls for thee.”