Jean Vanier: The Bell Tolls

Image by MorningbirdPhoto

Growing up we had a set of bookshelves framing the landing of our staircase. I was fascinated with those books, tracing my hand along their spines and looking through them. I don’t really remember anything particular about the books, even their titles— except for Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. I don’t know why I remember it, but maybe it’s because I was struck by the book’s epigraph from John Donne:

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.

Maybe it was the trace of rhyme towards the end—that resonance imitating the bell tolling. Or maybe it was the idea that we are all connected. I’ll never know why that one stuck. But the older I grow, the more those words resonate: we are all diminished by the loss of another.

Back on that staircase I didn’t know anything about Hemingway, Donne, or where the quote came from. But today, that bell seems to be tolling a little more loudly. The clang is painful as I quietly grieve for the loss of someone that I’ve never met. So, just out of curiosity, I went to Donne, almost like I was seeking a legendary wise man. Where did his reflection come from? What drove his insight. There, hundreds of years after the words were written, I found hope in his Meditation XVII.

If I’d given it some thought, I would have expected the quote to have a religious, even Christian, context—but I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I knew that Donne’s tolling bell referred to church bells, bells that would call to the community. Come. Pray. Grieve. Know and see yourself in loss. The bells remind of us of our own mortality and frailty. And they remind me of my need for the divine. But as I started reading Donne’s meditation, for some reason I was surprised by his focus on God and the church. For Donne, our interconnectedness is rooted in our creation by God.

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume.

Even though the meditation is written in prose, Donne’s poetic talents are obvious as he continues on, describing human death as God’s translation of a person “into a better language.”

God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

This translation isn’t just about loss. It breathes hope for an eternity and union with the One who created us and then translated our fragmented story into one that can speak into the lives of others.

Today the bells announce the translation of a man who—even though he doesn’t know it—has taught me to embrace my own brokenness instead of pretending that everything is OK. His example inspires me and his words breathe new life.

Jean Vanier voluntarily embraced a life that would have made me run as fast as possible in the opposite direction if I could. While many of aspects of Vanier’s life and humanitarian work are inspiring, for me it was his choice to live with those who are differently abled that has had the greatest influence. In a time where people with cognitive disabilities were often institutionalized, Vanier purchased a home and invited two cognitively disabled men to live with him. This wound up being the first L’Arche home. In the decades since then, L’Arche has spread across the world, creating homes where people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities live in covenant communities with those who assist them. And it all started because Vanier wanted to live out Jesus’ beatitudes.

Vanier’s life and writings have encouraged me to a place of brutal honesty about my own failures and shortcomings. In this honesty I have encountered Jesus. He comforts me there. He teaches me about His love. His Spirit enables me to keep walking. Moment by moment. Day by day. Slowly, He is transforming me.

Today, the bells remind me that I’m not alone. I am loved by my Savior and I am surrounded by His people. I walk this path with others.

Neither has Vanier been alone on his path. His story and legacy will remain. They are not being torn out of the book. Those whose lives have been touched by Vanier will continue the story. One day and one page at a time, until we too are translated. As for me? My loss is nothing compared to that of those who have personally encountered him, but I still have a role to play. We all do.

Sometimes the pain or troubles we face don’t seem light or momentary, but Donne’s meditation reminds us that God uses our difficulties, pain, and brokenness to transform us.

No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction . . . Tribulation is treasure.

So today, as I thank God for Vanier’s life and Donne’s words, I will once again try and embrace my brokenness. A close friend of mine calls it “running into the pain.” It sounds crazy. But when we realize that Jesus is there waiting for us, we realize that it isn’t choosing the lesser of two evils. It is the choice to continue the journey of transformation. It is the best choice. Running from our pain and hardship doesn’t solve any problems. It just creates more. But Jesus waits for each of us in that place where we acknowledge, confess, and embrace our own brokenness.

Yes, the bells toll for loss, but they also sing of hope. Not just in the resurrection or for a world without tears. No. They sing of a hope for today, because they remind us that we are not alone. We are on this journey together.

So, to paraphrase Donne, by this bell I will consider my own difficulties and take them to God. He alone is my hope and security. I will allow these bells to remind me that God will use the difficulties of this life to transform me into the image of Jesus. There. Yes, that is where I want to be. Transformed into the image of Jesus, offering hope to someone else. Just as Jean Vanier has done for me.


If you want to read Donne’s Meditation XVII yourself, it is hyperlinked above or you can click here.

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