In Memory of September 11th

To observe the five year anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, I want to post two extensive quotes that I find applicable and inspiring.

First, John Donne’s beautiful Meditation XVII. Even if you have read it before, please reread in the context of the September 11th tragedy.

PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but 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. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled), which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

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. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

Second, excepts from Lewis Carroll’s amazing, albeit almost unknown, preface to his novel Sylvie and Bruno:

A man may fix his own times for admitting serious thought, for attending public worship, for prayer, for reading the Bible: all such matters he can defer to that ‘convenient season’, which is so apt never to occur at all: but he cannot defer, for one single moment, the necessity of attending to a message, which may come before he has finished reading this page,’ this night shalt thy soul be required of thee.’

The ever-present sense of this grim possibility has been, in all ages, an incubus that men have striven to shake off. Few more interesting subjects of inquiry could be found, by a student of history, than the various weapons that have been used against this shadowy foe. Saddest of all must have been the thoughts of those who saw indeed an existence beyond the grave, but an existence far more terrible than annihilation—an existence as filmy, impalpable, all but invisible spectres, drifting about, through endless ages, in a world of shadows, with nothing to do, nothing to hope for, nothing to love! In the midst of the gay verses of that genial ‘bon vivant’ Horace, there stands one dreary word whose utter sadness goes to one’s heart. It is the word ‘exilium’ in the well-known passage

Omnes eodem cogimur, omnium
Versatur urna serius ocius
Sors exitura et nos in aeternum
Exilium impositura cymbae.

Yes, to him this present life—in spite of all its weariness and all its sorrow—was the only life worth having: all else was ‘exile’! Does it not seem almost incredible that one, holding such a creed, should ever have smiled?

And many in this day, I fear, even though believing in an existence beyond the grave far more real than Horace ever dreamed of, yet regard it as a sort of ‘exile’ from all the joys of life, and so adopt Horace’s theory, and say ‘let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.’

We go to entertainments, such as the theatre—I say ‘we’, for I also go to the play, whenever I get a chance of seeing a really good one, and keep at arm’s length, if possible, the thought that we may not return alive. Yet how do you know—dear friend, whose patience has carried you through this garrulous preface, that it may not be your lot, when mirth is fastest and most furious, to feel the sharp pang, or the deadly faintness, which heralds the final crisis—to see, with vague wonder, anxious friends bending over you to hear their troubled whispers perhaps yourself to shape the question, with trembling lips, “Is it serious?”, and to be told “Yes: the end is near” (and oh, how different all Life will look when those words are said!)—how do you know, I say, that all this may not happen to you, this night?

And dare you, knowing this, say to yourself “Well, perhaps it is an immoral play: perhaps the situations are a little too ‘risky’, the dialogue a little too strong, the ‘business’ a little too suggestive. I don’t say that conscience is quite easy: but the piece is so clever, I must see it this once! I’ll begin a stricter life to-morrow.” To-morrow, and to-morrow, and tomorrow!

Who sins in hope, who, sinning, says,
‘Sorrow for sin God’s judgement stays!’
Against God’s Spirit he lies; quite stops
Mercy with insult; dares, and drops,
Like a scorch’d fly, that spins in vain
Upon the axis of its pain,
Then takes its doom, to limp and crawl,
Blind and forgot, from fall to fall.

Let me pause for a moment to say that I believe this thought, of the possibility of death—if calmly realised, and steadily faced would be one of the best possible tests as to our going to any scene of amusement being right or wrong. If the thought of sudden death acquires, for you, a special horror when imagined as happening in a theatre, then be very sure the theatre is harmful for you, however harmless it may be for others; and that you are incurring a deadly peril in going. Be sure the safest rule is that we should not dare to live in any scene in which we dare not die.

But, once realise what the true object is in life—that it is not pleasure, not knowledge, not even fame itself, ‘that last infirmity of noble minds’—but that it is the development of character, the rising to a higher, nobler, purer standard, the building-up of the perfect Man—and then, so long as we feel that this is going on, and will (we trust) go on for evermore, death has for us no terror; it is not a shadow, but a light; not an end, but a beginning!

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