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No Man is an Island

By The Ven David Gunn-Johnson

In 1623 John Donne famously wrote, ‘No man is an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ Part of Donne’s intended meaning was that we are all part of something much larger than ourselves and we are all interconnected.

Conversely there are many who maintain that, connected or not, no one can ever fully and completely know another. The author, Richard Castle wrote in Heat Rises, ‘It’s not about knowing. You can never really know someone. It’s really about trust.’

Actually the two ideas are entirely compatible. The more you see of ‘the other’, the more you interact with them, the more you scrape the surface of their motives and needs, the clearer the image of the real person grows, and the more exciting the exploration of interconnectedness becomes.

This has little to do with like or dislike. You can neither love nor dislike someone with whom you are not ‘…a part of the main.’

These thoughts coalesced as we prepare once more for the Exeter Nativity. (Just so that you know who to blame, I wrote and directed it.)

That happened because most of the cast is drawn from people with whom I have worked in the past, be that on stage or in the Cathedral or, in several cases, both. This is the first time I have met the ‘Heavenly Host’ – a choir that may well have spent time at St Trinian’s. But the person I knew as a crucifer, and as Oberon, and as a Pirate of Penzance, now reveals a little more of himself as a Shepherd or a Wise man. The person I have seen acting and singing her heart out in 9 to 5 The Musical and in a play with puppets that only vaguely resembled Sesame Street, now presents a down to earth Mary. A chap who once played a gangster in One Man Two Guv’nors now recreates Joseph for us. The list could go on but the point for me is that all these lovely people, most of whom I felt I knew quite well and hold to be friends, I am now delighted to know a little better and, in several cases, to have discovered others with whom there is a new connectedness.

How do these thoughts play out in our daily round of encountering people? It is sometimes tempting to say of someone, ‘She is a saint’ or ‘He is a bad egg’ or to categorise people in one of a myriad of ways. That is natural. A good deed requires one response, while a bad deed requires another. The latter needs correcting while the former often goes unnoticed.

However, while actions – or reported actions – may indicate something about a person, they do not fully define them. I have often used the line, ‘Consider that what you think you know is not the whole story and that what you do not know may hold a greater truth.’

One of my favourite spiritual writers is the late Thomas Merton. One day he was standing on a corner in the shopping district of Louisville and of that moment he wrote, ‘I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realisation that I loved all those people… even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.’

Merton discovered the power that makes all people and every atom of created matter interconnected. One day, perhaps, I will see that as clearly as he did but until then, I hold on to the truth that I am not – no one is – an island.