John Donne: illness, death, and God

by
04 May 2020

Devotions approximates a “spirituality of sickness” which speaks wisdom to the current Covid-19 crisis, says Marcus Throup

national portrait gallery, london

John Donne (1572-1631), after a painting by Isaac Oliver, 1616

John Donne (1572-1631), after a painting by Isaac Oliver, 1616

Variable, and therefore miserable condition of man! This minute I was well, and am ill, this minute.”

SO BEGINS John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, an exquisite collection of reflections on infirmity, mortality, death, and life in Christ.

In the winter of 1623, Donne contracted an illness, possibly typhus, which almost killed him. During the period of his convalescence, the then Dean of St Paul’s drew on his experience of acute physical sickness as fuel for his meditations on the spiritual sickness of sin. Reminiscent, at times, of St Augustine’s Confessions, the theological wrestling of St Paul in Romans, and the miserable laments of Job (all of which our author refers to), Donne’s Devotions comprise something of a tour de force in harmatology. Those seeking an alternative Lent book need look no further.

Just as Donne endured the throes of fever, his reflections are imbued with a somewhat feverish quality, oscillating between the peaks of God’s grace revealed in Christ and the troughs of the human condition embroiled in temptation and sin. On the one hand, consciousness of sin escorts the sick soul to the nadir of human experience; but reminders of Christ’s deliverance are a remedy to rally the spiritually stricken:

“It is a heavy and indelible sin that I brought into the world with me; it is a heavy and innumerable multitude of sins which I have heaped up since. . .

“Let thy spirit of true contrition and sorrow pass all my sins, through these eyes, into the wounds of thy Son, and I shall be clean, and my soul so much better purged than my body, as it is ordained for better and a longer life”

Thus, forged in the furnace of fever and penned from the perspective of self-isolation, Devotions approximates a “spirituality of sickness” which speaks wisdom to the current Covid-19 crisis.

Today, Donne’s meditations form a timely reminder of the interconnectedness of original sin, our individual and corporate sin, and the wide-reaching effects of the same. If, as appears probable, the current crisis has come about through an ongoing disregard of “creation care”, then this rather pointedly proves Donne’s dictum that “the root of all sickness is sin”.

More optimistically, Donne has recourse to the unlimited hope which he encounters in Jesus. Even the lockdown of the grave must give way to the limitless love of the risen and victorious Christ.

On a personal note, when I found myself laid low by (suspected) coronavirus, the Devotions provided a helpful way in to Lenten prayer and praise: “My God, my God, thou hast made this sick bed thine altar, and I have no other sacrifice to offer but myself. . .

“As long as I remain in this great hospital, this sick, this diseaseful world, as long as I remain in this leprous house, this flesh of mine, this heart, though thus prepared for thee, prepared by thee, will still be subject to the invasion of malign and pestilent vapours.

“But I have my cordials in thy promise; when I shall know the plague of my heart and pray unto thee in thy house, thou wilt preserve that heart from all mortal force of that infection; and the peace of God which passeth all understandings shall keep my heart and mind through Christ Jesus.

Quarantined and distanced from others, lying on the altar that was his sick bed, Donne found that his uninvited guest, his illness, brought him closer to God through a deep self-examination and a thoroughgoing return to first principles.

Without minimising the challenges we face, or the heart-rending tragedy of daily death tolls, it is increasingly clear that our uninvited guest — the coronavirus crisis — is the impromptu catalyst for reimagining the Church in the 21st century.

That reimagining, though, will only bear fruit if it builds on the cross of “turning from sin” and the empty tomb of renewal in the living Christ. What Donne discovered in himself 400 years ago becomes apposite for the Church of England if it is truly to be the Church for England: namely, spiritual vitality is predicated on the first principles of “repent and believe” reviewed through the lens of the risen Lord of life.

 

Quotations are taken from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions Together with Death’s Duel (Michigan: Ann Arbor, 1959).

The Revd Dr Marcus Throup is Dean of Licensed Ministry Training in the diocese of Winchester, visiting Research Fellow of the University of Winchester, and author of All Things Anglican (Canterbury Press, 2018).

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