Monday, March 17, 2008

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions - John Donne on suffering and death

John Donne (1572-1631) was raised a Catholic in Protestant England. Having been persecuted for his Catholic faith (denied a degree at Oxford and Cambridge even though he was one of the top students, his brother dying in prison for harboring a priest) he rebelled against all faith and spent his young adult years between the sheets - "celebrating his sexual exploits in some of the most frankly erotic poems in all of English literature." (Yancey, Philip. Soul Survivor, 208). He eventually got married, but was slandered by his father-in-law and lost his job at the noble court and was thrown into prison. For the next decade he lived in poverty until, at the age of 42, he had a conversion experience and decided to become an Anglican priest. Shortly after this, his wife died, leaving him with seven children (five more had died in infancy). Eventually Donne became the dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
Donne was dean of St. Paul's when the Great Plauge struck London. During his tenure, a third of the city perished from the plague with a third more fleeing to the countryside. Eventually Donne himself was diagnosed with the plague. For six weeks he was bed ridden, thinking each day was his last. During this time he wrote what would later be compiled into Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (Emergent as in "Emergency" - no relation to the Emergent Church movement). The Devotions are a "no-holds-barred wrestling match with God Almighty...trenchant without being blasphemous, profound without being abstract or impersonal" (Yancey, 207.)
The following quotes from Devotions are taken from Philip Yancey's chapter on Donne in his book Soul Survivor. I have also included some quotes from Yancey, that help give context. Donne's quotes will be in italics and Yancey's in quotation marks. My prayer is that they will challenge, encourage, and induce worship to our Sovereign Lord Jesus.

"In Devotions, John Donne calls God to task. 'I have not the righteousness of Job, but I have the desire of Job: I would speak to the Almighty, and I would reason with God.' Sometimes he taunts God, sometimes he grovels and pleads for forgiveness, sometimes he argues fiercely. Not once, though, does Donne leave God out of the process." (211)

as thou has given me a repentance, not to be repented of, so give me, O Lord, a fear, of which I may not be afraid. "At first- confined to bed, churning out prayers without answers, contemplating death, regurgitating guilt - he can find no relief from fear. Obsessed, he reviews every biblical occurrence of the word fear. As he does so, it dawns on him that life will always include circumstances that incite fear: if not illness, financial hardship, if not poverty, rejection, if not loneliness, failure. In such a world, Donne has a choice: to fear God, or to fear everything else." (213)

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less...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. "We grieve at another's death because we ourselves are diminished. In the same event we sense a deep unity with others and also its rending." (216) (the daily death of plague victims was marked by ringing church bells, Donne heard these bells out his window on a constant daily basis, as he waited for his bell to ring).

Though so disobedient a servant as I may be afraid to die, yet to so merciful a master as thou I cannot be afraid to come

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still: though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For, I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin? and, made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year, or two: but wallowed in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thy self, that at my death thy son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done,
I fear no more.
(A Hymn to God the Father)

that voice, that I must die now, is not the voice of a judge that speaks by way of condemnation, but of a physician that presents health

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so...
...One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.

I cannot plead innocency of life, especially of my youth, but I am to be judged by a merciful God, who is not willing to see what I have done amiss. And though of myself I have nothing to present to Him but sins and misery, yet I know He looks upon me not as I am of myself, but as I am in my Savior...I am therefore full of inexpressible joy, and shall die in peace."

Our last day is our first day; our Saturday is our Sunday; our eve is our holy day; our sunsetting is our morning; the day of our death is the first day of our eternal life. The next day after that...comes that day that shall show me to myself. Here I never saw myself but in disguises; there, then, I shall see myself, but I shall see God too...Here I have one faculty enlightened, and another left in darkness; mine understanding sometimes cleared, my will at the same time perverted. There I shall be all light, no shadow upon me; my soul invested in the light of joy, and my body in the light of glory. (from Donne's Sermons)

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