Opinion: Finding Meaning

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For Whom the Bell Tolls

A year or so ago the Beautiful Wife and I were guests of Laguna’s Chabad Jewish Center for a Passover Seder. My admiration for the Jewish faith begins with their remarkable endurance. What other people has maintained identity and faith for 33 centuries? During a pause in the Seder came a conversation I still ponder.

The woman beside me, reflecting on her infrequent worship, concluded, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” It’s an expression heard so often it becomes both cliché and affirmation of our spiritual nature. The good Rabbi was some distance away. Perhaps he has the hearing of an owl, or maybe it was inspiration, but when the program resumed he observed that if we don’t worship God, the breadth of our worship will shrink to just ourselves.

This not to criticize the woman; she had, after all, bestirred herself to attend a religious ceremony of great meaning. Rather it is to observe a fad of our time for some—uncertainty about religion. Things are not as they seem; per the Pew Research Center, America is by far the most religious of the Western nations. Yet, as Pew often notes, for many it is a time of religious retreat. This is not news; it simply reflects an ebb and flow as old as history.

The swinging pendulum of human faith will inevitably decline with the friction of time, but eras of resurgence born of our spiritual nature have always followed. Consider the Great Awakenings of American history, or the rise of religiosity in times of depression or war. In the long view of history, a new birth of faith is a wiser bet than its terminal illness.

In the English Elizabethan Age, illness was considered a visit from God related to one’s sins. This was before the scientific era, yet there’s a message. The poet scholar John Donne suffered such an illness in 1623, when he was the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. During a 23-day sickness he wrote his memorable “Devotions,” a section for each day. At the nadir, close to death, he spoke of the community of humankind with unforgettable words, in modern English, “No man is an island entire of itself…” Donne continued, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Donne was right; the death of one, diminishes all. Likewise, to walk on the sunny side, each birth increases all.

Faithful readers of this column know I attend all of Laguna’s churches. Each has a remarkable history and over the years each has blessed our town. It’s a joy to attend a worship service, greet people, experience the spirit, and ponder the wisdom shared by sermon. There are too many empty chairs in our churches, a great loss to Laguna. Still, in this time of COVID, there are a plethora of Internet entries telling of a new birth of faith. Each birth lifts all, even the spiritual but not yet religious. Donne was right, the church bell tolls for all. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach. Email: [email protected]

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