Memorial Chapel: The Bell Tolls For All of Us

In the first Chapel of each school year, we remember the Middlesex graduates who lost their lives in WWI and WWII.  The Memorial Chapel was built in 1924 in honor and remembrance of those Middlesex boys who died in WWI, and it was rededicated in 1946 to include Middlesex graduates who died in WWII.  Ms. Smedley, Director of Spiritual and Ethical Education, opened the Chapel with these words:

In 17th century English villages, the local priest would toll the church bells to announce a villager’s death.  If you were out working in the fields, or home working in the kitchen, you would hear the church bell toll and know that one of your neighbors had died.  You would then hurry into town to find out who had died and get to work comforting and helping the bereft family.  This death knell was a wide-spread and well-known custom, so it was somewhat surprising when John Donne wrote the following poem about these very church bells.  He writes:  

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 bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

 

Though writing in England 400 years ago, Donne speaks directly to our Memorial Chapel today, and to our Middlesex community in general.  Every person on this campus constitutes our whole - the continent of which we are all a part.  If one of us here at Middlesex dies, we all lose a piece of ourselves.  If one of us here at Middlesex suffers, we all feel pain.  When the bell tolls, it tolls for all of us. Just a few decades ago, in this country, Martin Luther King Jr. said something very similar to John Donne.  

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, King writes, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”   King echoes Donne’s sentiments in describing us not as individual strands of thread, but rather as threaded together into one single and shared garment, such that “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

While certainly poetic and perhaps even inspiring, Donne and King’s sense of community might strike us as idealistic, or impractical, or even impossible.  Can I really experience someone else’s pain - and if so, can I really do anything to alleviate it?  But let’s look again at Donne and King’s imagery.  If I hear the church bells toll in my village, I can take a meal to the mourning family in my neighborhood.  If I see a Black woman forbidden to sit down on a bus in my city, I can boycott that bus.  And if, like Frederick Winsor, I witness 10 young Middlesex graduates die in World War I, I can build a chapel to remember and honor them.  

It isn’t always possible to heed the bells or mend the garments in other villages or cities.  But we can at least heed the bells and mend the garments right here and right now. We can comfort or support or help someone in our dorm, or in our class, or on our team, or in the Dining Hall, or maybe even in line behind us at Dunkin Donuts.  One small word or action might seem inconsequential, but as parts of the same continent and threads in the same garment, we have the power to create consequential ramifications.  Therefore, as we share our Middlesex community this year, let us use this Memorial Chapel, that we walk past every day, as a reminder to listen with Donne’s ears and to see with King’s eyes, and to respond, as Winsor did almost 100 years ago, with respect and love.

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