Many assume Ernest Hemmingway coined the phrase "For Whom the Bell Tolls," the title of his famous 1940 novel. The words come, though, from a poem by John Donne. He in turn apparently based his work on a 16th century devotional which includes the line: "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..." "Tolling" referring to the old custom of ringing the church bell when someone in town died.
On Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009, the bell tolled for one Robert A Parke, age 37, of Brazil Ind. His obituary listed one of his favorite activities as taking walks. According to the news report appearing beside the obituary Robert was accidently hit by a vehicle when he walked into traffic on an early-morning walk in dark and rainy weather. Although pure conjecture, one would assume he stepped into the street due to some perceived distraction. I have seen Robert walking along the streets and he usually seemed reasonably cautious.
Robert was a simple man, with a simple man's understanding of Christianity and the message of Jesus Christ. He was probably better for his simple faith; "much knowledge" has often been a barrier to spiritual growth. Simple men of simple faith gather few admirers, garner no accolades, and often pass un-noted.
Robert always sat up front at Christ Community Church, and everyone had to be aware of him. Every church desperately needs someone with simple faith to keep us from thinking too highly of our "church-ness." Robert's important contribution to his church community has been lost. It is not clear, however, how long his absence will be noticed. Unspectacular people are too often quickly forgotten. Someone else will sit in the front row. Ideally someone with equally simple faith will be called to take his place.
Robert had been attending Christ Community for some time. On a few occasions we'd seen him walking home after a service and gave him a ride. Paradoxically, for someone seen at church on a regular basis, this was as well as we knew him.
We reach a certain age when the first thing read in the morning paper is the obituaries. There are particular numbers on which to concentrate: Ages higher than your own carry a sense of relief, "I'm not near that old, I've got lots of time left."
Sadness comes uninvited when obituaries reveal a name of someone you actually know, know more than just giving an occasional ride, more-or-less of your own generation. Plans are made to "pay my respects," whatever that means.
Reality comes home when the name is someone you just saw a few days ago, who is younger than two of your own sons. Now comes every man's moment of truth, his personal test of simple faith: Am I, after all, really mortal? Do none of us actually have any promise of getting "that old?"
The passing of a simple, undistinguished man on a dark, misty morning diminished me, for I am a part of all humankind. Humans all walk along the road of life shrouded by mist, never knowing if they may be distracted from the narrow way. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls, also, for thee -- and for me.
David L. Lewis is an observer of and sometimes commentator on life who may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.