I am a rock, I am an island?
I can hardly believe our daughter Kazy is going to be 50 this year; I gave birth to her a half century ago! One of the songs we all played and sang during her early years was Simon and Garfunkel’s “I am a rock, I am an island”, from their album “Sounds of Silence”, a haunting melody with words that used to make me cry:
“A winter’s day in a deep and dark December, I am alone…….I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain……If I never loved I never would have cried…..I touch no one and no one touches me….. I am a rock, I am an island……And a rock feels no pain; and an island never cries.”
The sad, and anguished resolve of someone hurt in love to now hide emotionally, and never risk loving again, for fear of the pain of loss and being hurt a second time. The refrain and title of the track are as perhaps you know a denial of one of the most celebrated passages in literature “No man is an island”, penned by John Donne:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less…….
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
I looked up the lyrics of the Simon and Garfunkel song, because of a book I’ve been reading with a chapter about John Donne, and in particular the above poem. During his term as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral (this was before it was completely destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666), three waves of the Great Bubonic Plague swept through the city, and a third of London died. Londoners flocked to Dean Donne for an explanation, or for comfort, but then he himself was diagnosed with the plague, and in 1623 lay dying, tortured by the pain of his illness, his guilt over his misspent youth, a broken heart over the death of his wife, and agonising over the mystery of what life and suffering is all about.
And so, as he carried on a no-holds-barred wrestling match with his Maker, he started writing down his thoughts in a journal, which were later published as “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions”, which has remained in print for almost four centuries! As he faced his physical illness, he heard church bells ringing marking another man’s death from the plague, an advance echo of his own death, and grieving, sensed the deep unity we have with others, and the loss that diminishes us when any man dies, and wrote the now famous poem. But as he also faced his spiritual illness, he came after much heart searching, to believe that Jesus died in order to effect a cure “That voice that says I must die now is not the voice of a judge that speaks by way of condemnation, but of a physician that presents health”
And later, after wrestling with the acceptance of his death, he says
“Though so disobedient a servant as I, may be afraid to die, yet so merciful a master as thou, I cannot be afraid to come.”
Somehow after all his battling and writing, he came through his inner turmoil and achieved what he called a “holy indifference” to death, and a renewed confidence in resurrection. He spoke about death being not our last day, but our first; about our Saturday (after Good Friday) being our Sunday, our sunsetting being our dawn, and as he lay preparing to die, found himself in the arms of a merciful Physician, who so tenderly guided him through the crisis, that he emerged to give comfort and hope to others, both in person, and through his writings: he had in fact been misdiagnosed, recovered from the spotted typhus like fever, and lived another 8 years.
So let us ask Father God for the courage to go on asking him those tough questions, to wrestle with him even if like Jacob we’re limping already from the last bout; for the boldness to go on allowing Him and others to love us, to be truly known; and for the bravery to go on loving others and knowing them, even when it hurts; to be fully ‘involved in mankind’, to hurt when they hurt and rejoice when they rejoice.