OHN DONNE (1572-1631) called his ordination his second birth. He
was ordained deacon and priest on 23 January 1615. It was a day of
momentous change. In a later sermon, he recalled that "I date my
life from my ministry; for I received mercy, as I received the
He even changed the seal on his letters: his family's device was
a sheaf of snakes, but now he used a picture of Christ on a cross
that extended into an anchor, the symbol of hope. He sent a copy to
his friend George Herbert, together with a poem:
Adopted in God's family, and so
Our old coat lost, unto new arms I go.
The Cross (my seal at baptism) spread below,
Does by that form into an anchor grow.
Donne knew that the serpent, the author of sin, still remained:
"My death he is, but on the Cross my cure."
Once he was ordained, his rise was illustrious. He became
chaplain to both Kings James I and Charles I; Reader in Divinity at
Lincoln's Inn; Vicar of St Dunstan-in-the-West, London; and Dean of
St Paul's Cathedral. Yet his path to the ministry was unusual.
It took him a long time to decide on his vocation. Friends -
among them deans and bishops - had been urging him to enter the
ministry for at least eight years. He said that it was James I
himself who finally persuaded him, a story that he took care to
At 42 years of age, Donne was older than most new ministers. He
had been born and raised a Roman Catholic when it was dangerous to
be so. Even more notoriously, as a young man, he had written erotic
poetry that spoke of any number of romantic and sexual scenarios.
He wrote of a flea bite that suggested how two lovers' blood - and
other bodily fluids - might be mingled; a waft of perfume that
revealed to the girl's father that he had been secretly visiting
her; a "bracelet of bright hair" worn as a love token around his
arm. He imagines that one day it will be found in his grave,
wrapped around his arm bone, and treated as a holy relic, so
Thou shalt be a Mary
Magdalen, and I
A something else thereby.
What else, Donne never tells us, but he teeters on the edge of
CHURCH career gave Donne the stability that he had missed in his
earlier, failed attempts at civil employment. Money was always
tight in the Donne household. He had a wife, many children, and an
ageing mother to support. But, in choosing the ministry, there is
no doubt that Donne was motivated by a deep spiritual
He probably wrote most of his great religious poetry in the five
years leading up to his ordination. His "Holy Sonnets" reveal a
devotional life as imaginative as it is intense. They take a
traditional poetic form for secular romance - the sonnet - and turn
it towards God. "For dearly I love you," he wrote, "But am
betrothed unto your enemy."
Donne exploited the paradox that he learned his craft writing
love poems. His religious verse notes the oddness of talking to God
in the same way that he did to women. At one point, he even reused
a chat-up line to express his faith:
. . . but as in my idolatry
I said to all my profane mistresses, . . .
so I say to thee . . .
Urgently, even breathlessly, he challenged God to work on
Thou hast made me, and shall thy
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste.
The poems dramatise crisis - a present moment that may change
IZAAK WALTON, Donne's first biographer and former parishioner,
painted him as a second St Augustine: "For I think none was so like
him before his conversion; none so like St Ambrose after it. And if
his youth had the infirmities of the one, his age had the
excellencies of the other."
The comparison would have pleased Donne. Augustine was his
favourite authority, and he quoted frequently from the
Confessions in his sermons. He liked to reinvent himself.
He distinguished the "Jack Donne" of his youth, the unsteady young
man-about-town, from the "Dr Donne" of the pulpit.
But the continuities are just as noticeable: the same images in
love poems, and sermons; the same moments of vertiginous intensity;
the same games with time and place. His God was "the God of noon,
and of midnight", and, as he put it in another sermon, "God sees us
at midnight; he sees us, then, when we had rather he looked
Walton believed that Donne had channelled his former passions
into his new calling, changing "all his earthly affections . . .
into divine love". It is a convincing account of the emotional
energies in all his work.
Donne found his home in the pulpit. Again and again, he quoted
his favourite verse: "Woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel!"
(1 Corinthians 9.16). Perhaps he felt that he was making up for
At St Paul's, he was obliged to give sermons only on the main
feast days, but he preached all through the year, and even expanded
the sermon provision at the cathedral. He found the Psalms a
particularly satisfying base text. Among his finest sermons are
five on the psalms (62-66) that he was required to recite daily as
Prebendary of Chiswick.
One of them begins with a meditation: "The Psalms are the manna
of the Church. As manna tasted to every man like that he liked
best, so do the Psalms minister instruction, and satisfaction, to
every man, in every emergency and occasion."
They also had a personal resonance for him as a poet:
A man may have a particular love
towards such or such a book of Scripture, and in such an affection,
I acknowledge, that my spiritual appetite carries me still, upon
the Psalms of David, for a first course, for the Scriptures of the
Old Testament, and upon the Epistles of Saint Paul, for a second
course, for the New.
IS sermons, typically an hour long, started from scriptural
verse, and weighed it, clause by clause. They balanced judgement
and mercy, repentance and hope, creating layers of meaning from his
In his Easter sermons, the resurrection is at once a historical
event, a future promise of heaven, and a present experience to be
felt in the hearts of his listeners. Sometimes, he worked from
commentaries, and he was not afraid to draw on contemporary Roman
Catholic writers (although not always admitting that he had done
The sermons are learned and allusive, but they are not the
original, scholarly exercises produced by some other senior clerics
of the day, such as the translators of the King James Bible.
They are also carefully tuned to the occasion and place. On 3
April 1625, a week after his former patron, James I, had died, he
preached to the newly minted Charles I and his court on the text
"If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?"
The liturgical year and national mourning come together in
Donne's sermon: "We are still in the season of mortification, in
Lent," he says, "but we search no longer for texts of
mortification; the almighty hand of God hath shed and spred a text
of mortification over all the land."
Donne points out that James I's death has not destroyed the
country's foundations, but his choice of verse captures a shared
fear about what might happen next. Would Charles be like his
father? Would he seek peace with the enemy, Roman Catholic Spain,
or war? Would he try to drown out one set of voices in the Church
for another? The sermon registers those anxieties, but also tries
to calm them: "Study to be quiet" (1 Thessalonians 4.11), he
ONNE's sermons were often politically charged, but he was also
attuned to the state of the individual soul. As in his poems, he
loved to dwell on the dramatic present, the here - and now - of
salvation. He was at his most electrifying as he observed the
grains of sand drain from the hour-glass next to him:
But we are now in the work of an
hour, and no more. If there be a minute of sand left, (there is
not), if there be a minute of patience left, hear me say: This
minute that is left, is that eternity which we speak of; upon this
minute dependeth that eternity: and this minute, God is in this
congregation, and puts his ear to every one of your hearts, and
hearkens what you will bid him say to your selves: whether he shall
bless you for your acceptation, or curse you for your refusal of
him this minute: for this minute makes up your century, your
hundred years, your eternity, because it may be your last
If this appears stark and uncompromising, his sermons are also
suffused with warmth. He dwelt on grace and glory: grace in this
world, glory in the next. For Donne, as he put it in a poem written
to someone who had just taken orders, the ministry is:
. . . that profession
Whose joys pass speech.
He was more able than most to put joy into speech, and it comes
through in the movement of his sermons, the pattern of fall and
rise. They are rewarding rich reads in their entirety. And, in
smaller sections, they speak to us as meditations and prayers. The
end of one of them is now well-known as a prayer. If we return to
the original text, we can see how his reflection on heaven was as
much about the present moment - about a life on earth that keeps
the future continually in mind:
And into that gate they shall enter,
and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no cloud
nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise
nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes, but one equal
possession, no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and
identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity. Keep us
Lord so awake in the duties of our callings, that we may thus sleep
in thy peace, and wake in thy glory, and change that infallibility
which thou affordest us here, to an actual and undeterminable
possession of that Kingdom which thy Son our Saviour Christ Jesus
hath purchased for us, with the inestimable price of his
Dr Mary Ann Lund is a lecturer in English at the University
of Leicester, and editor of Volume 12 of The Oxford
Edition of the Sermons of John Donne.