“He that will die with Christ upon Good Friday, must hear his own bell toll all Lent…” So begins a Lenten sermon by that most eloquent of Anglican divines, the Rev. Dr. John Donne. Hearing these lugubrious chimes bind us together with Christ’s passion, we are reminded that our living and dying are of a piece with His. “We begin to hear Christ’s bell toll now, and is not our bell in the chime?” Truly, “no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…”
According to Donne, Lent should be viewed as a period of constant mortification; a perpetual martyrdom. “We must be in his grave, before we come to his resurrection, and we must be in his deathbed before we come to his grave: we must do as he did, fast and pray, before we can say as he said, that In manus tuas, ‘Into thy hands O Lord I commend my Spirit.’” It is the peal of a single bell that we hear, His music becomes our song. One “need not send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Just as Christians share with their Lord in the same solemn tune, these forty days of testing are a figural repetition of Gethsemane, Gabbatha, and Golgotha wherein the evening and the morning are one lenten day. As “all of Christ’s life was a continual passion, all our Lent may well be a continual Good Friday.”
John Donne was no stranger to sin and death. Styled by his friend and biographer as the “second St. Augustine,” Donne was, like the famed bishop—and the great Apostle before him, a son born in due time. Though born in 1572 to a Roman Catholic family, the young “Jack Donne” was far from pious. By his own account, he was a man consumed by base passions. His early poetry bears an almost pornographic stamp that was almost as lewd and unchaste as was his actual life. Izaac Walton recalled:
It is a truth that in his penitential years, viewing some of those pieces that had been loosely – God knows, too loosely – scattered in his youth, be wished they had been abortive, or so short-lived that his own eyes had witnessed their funerals…
On his deathbed, Donne composed “A Hymn to God the Father” in which he expressed his regret for his profligate youth and the seductive pen by which he had led so many others astray:
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’ve spun My last thread, I shall perish on the shore; But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son Shall shine as be shines now, and heretofore; And having done that, thou hast done, I fear no more.
The poet’s entrance into the kingdom came by way of a circuitous route, but once he was among the faithful, faithful he became. His restless heart was won over by what Thomas Chalmers called the “expulsive power of a new affection.” Knowing his tendency to be drawn away by his lust and enticed, he besought the Lord to win his allegiance by whatever means necessary. One of his most famous “Holy Sonnets” expresses this spiritual longing through the rough imagery of a tinkerer and the erotic imagery of a lover:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. I, like an usurp’d town to another due, Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end; Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue. Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain, But am betroth’d unto your enemy; Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, Take me to you, imprison me, for I, Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
On January 23, 1615, he took for his final mistress the virginal Bride of Christ. In the years after his conversion, he drew a stark line between “Jack Donne” and “Dr. Donne,” dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and by setting “the Mistresse of my youth, Poetry,” against “the wyfe of mine age, Divinity.” His latter days were as marked by passion as was his youth, for the Lord had brought him into His banqueting house and conquered his heart with an otherworldly Love. Donne drank deeply from the wells of salvation; from waters transfigured into the choicest of wines. In the end, John Donne was an utterly God-besotted soul.
Though he now wore the clean white linen of the righteousness of Christ, he viewed it primarily as his future burial shroud. John Donne the priest knew well that even though he had crucified and buried Jack Donne the profligate there would still be a day of reaping. For sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.
Death was no stranger to Donne. He witnessed three waves of the Black Plague that swept through London during his ten year tenure as dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, killing tens of thousands with each recurrence. He buried six of his twelve children before they reached their majority. When he was a younger man he nearly went mad after death claimed one of his children. In 1608, several years before he came to faith, he even wrote, but never published, Biathanatos—a defense of suicide. But perhaps the hardest blow of all was when he had to bury Anne, the darling wife of his youth. Through heaving sobs, the newly-minted minister took the words of the prophet Jeremiah’s Lamentations, and cried out, “Lo, I am the man that hath seen affliction.”
Death was an uneasy companion; a constant fellow-traveler, a servant of God who, like Donne, would serve God at the last. It is little wonder then that thirty-two of his fifty-four songs deal with death. But this is not a morbid fascination detached from an attendant hope. In what is perhaps his most famous poem on the subject, Donne takes numerous jabs at his cold adversary:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
At the beginning of Lent, 1631, an emaciated Donne, whose body was racked by stomach cancer, rose to the pulpit at Whitehall from his sickbed to deliver his most famous sermon, “Death’s Duel.” Though King Charles I was in the gallery, this message was ultimately for Donne himself. It would be his last.
An observer recounts,
When, to the amazement of some beholders, he appeared in the pulpit, many of them thought he presented himself not to preach mortification by a living voice, but mortality by a decayed body, and a dying face. And doubtless many did secretly ask that question in Ezekiel. “Do these bones live?”
…yet, after some faint pauses in his zealous prayer, his strong desires enabled his weak body to discharge his memory of his preconceived meditations, which were of dying; the Text being, “To God the Lord belong the issues from death.” Many that then saw his tears, and heard his faint and hollow voice, professing they thought the Text prophetically chosen, and that Dr. Donne had preached his own Funeral Sermon.
That preacher, whose soul was already more in eternity than out of it, pressed upon his hearers the pathway to a holy Lent. We want Easter lilies without the ashes, but Donne reminds us that every resurrection begins with a grave. The hard disciplines of prayer, fasting, and self-denial are not the luxuries of some spiritually elite class, but rather are those things which bring our disordered lives into conformity—perhaps I should say cruciformity—with Christ. Just as Good Friday follows Gethsemane, our ascetic practices are also coupled with a sense of holy discontentment. Lent is the school in which we learn to pray, wait, and then persevere when we receive no answer. Or better still, to submit to the wisdom of a gracious Providence when we receive an answer that runs contrary to our desires. Indeed, the most valuable lenten lesson is grasped when we are able to say, “Thy will be done.”
The subtitle of Donne’s sermon “A Consolation to the Soul, against the dying Life and the living Death of the Body” is a call to examine the paradoxical reality we inhabit. This was but his own refashioning of the Gregorian hymn Thomas Cranmer had already transposed into the burial rite: Media vita in morte sumus (“in the midst of life, we are in death”). Thus, Lent is a time for us to contemplate death and mortality because we are already experiencing it.
“We celebrate our own funerals with cries even at our birth,” says Donne. Our deliverance from the womb is “but introitus in mortem.” It is an entrance into death, a “delivering over to another death, the manifold deaths of this world; we have a winding-sheet in our mother’s womb which grows with us from our conception, and we come into the world wound up in that winding-sheet, for we come to seek a grave.” Though St. Paul says that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord, Donne maintains that he may have well said that we are dead as long as we are in the body “for this whole world is but an universal churchyard, but our common grave.”
He goes on to say that which we call the “life-cycle” is, in fact, a cycle of deaths. That which we refer to as life is “a week of death.”
…seven days, seven periods of our life spent in dying, a dying seven times over; and there is an end. Our birth dies in infancy, and our infancy dies in youth, and youth and the rest die in age, and age also dies and determines all. Nor do all these, youth out of infancy, or age out of youth, arise so, as the phoenix out of the ashes of another phoenix formerly dead, but as a wasp or a serpent out of a carrion, or as a snake out of dung. Our youth is worse than our infancy, and our age worse than our youth. Our youth is hungry and thirsty after those sins which our infancy knew not; and our age is sorry and angry, that it cannot pursue those sins which our youth did; and besides, all the way, so many deaths, that is, so many deadly calamities accompany every condition and every period of this life, as that death itself would be an ease to them that suffer them.
Since we live our lives in bouts of death and dying, we should spend our days making preparations for our final hour. Indeed, our “critical day is not the very day of our death, but the whole course of our life. I thank him that prays for me when the bell tolls, but I thank him much more that catechizes me, or preaches to me, or instructs me how to live.”
Taking us again to the strange events of Good Friday, Donne encourages us to think upon death and see it as a thing redeemed. In dying, Christ sanctified the grave, emptied the tomb of its terrors, removed the sting of death, and hallowed the cool bed of the deep down earth making it a resting place. That “God would die,” says the Poet, “is an exaltation” of that once-lowly estate. Since we speak daily of the death of Christ when we recite the creeds, “can the memory or the mention of our own death be irksome or bitter?”
Donne deposes death as dread lord and clothes him with the livery of Christ. The Grim Reaper is God’s own creature. At the last, the Face of God will break through the clouds. He will come leaping upon the mountains, skipping on the hills. His eye will find our slumbering place. His loving voice will wake up the morning. For lo, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The time of the singing of birds has come. The beauty of the Lord our God will be upon us. He will say, “Arise my love, my fair one, and come away.” The grave will bow its head and bid us go forth to meet our Beloved. And we will rise like the early sun and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
But the end is not yet. The climax of the sermon comes as Donne moves from speaking of Good Friday as a day and summons us to conceive of it as a discipline. “Take in the whole day from the hour that Christ received the passover upon Thursday unto the hour in which he died the next day. Make this present day that day in thy devotion, and consider what he did, and remember what you have done.”
Go with Christ into the Upper Room and learn humility with the basin and the towel. Rise up and go into the moonless night with psalms of praise upon your lips. Join our Lord beneath the boughs of the olive trees where our souls are pressed together with His. Kneel in the secret place and pray until the answer comes. Bend your neck before the will of God when it finally does. Feel the icy lips of the traitor’s kiss, the cold iron of the persecutor’s shackles. Hear the sound of familiar footsteps growing distant in your ear as your friends flee from your presence. In all this, let this mind be in you which also was in Christ Jesus. Bear beatings without a word. As a sheep before her shearer is dumb, open not your mouth. Take up your cross and follow on to the top of the hill. Lay down your life for the sake of a thankless mob. Yield your spirit back to the God who gave it.
Can we do this? No. But He did. And insofar as our feeble faith is unable to lay hold upon the hem of His seamless garment, Grace reaches forth and draws us into the whole of Christ’s life. Lent is about following Christ to the cross. The second greatest lesson we learn along the way is that we are unable to bear it; the first is that He already has.
Donne sounds this note of utter dependence on Christ in the sermon’s closing words:
There now hangs that sacred body upon the cross, rebaptized in his own tears, and sweat, and embalmed in his own blood alive. There are those bowels of compassion which are so conspicuous, so manifested, as that you may see them through his wounds. There those glorious eyes grew faint in their sight, so as the sun, ashamed to survive them, departed with his light too. And then that Son of God, who was never from us, and yet had now come a new way unto us in assuming our nature, delivers that soul (which was never out of his Father’s hands) by a new way, a voluntary emission of it into his Father’s hands; for though to this God our Lord belonged these issues of death, so that considered in his own contract, he must necessarily die, yet at no breach or battery which they had made upon his sacred body issued his soul; but he gave up the ghost; and as God breathed a soul into the first Adam, so this second Adam breathed his soul into God, into the hands of God.
There we leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross, there bathe in his tears, there suck at his wounds, and lie down in peace in his grave, till he vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that kingdom which He hath prepared for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. Amen.
Returning to his bed, John Donne never left it again. A year earlier he had laid out his funeral plans in verse. The words are almost prophetic.
Since I am coming to that holy room, Where, with thy Choir of Saints, for evermore I shall be made thy music, as I come I tune my instrument here at the door, And, what I must do then, think here before. Since my Physicians by their loves are grown Cosmographers; and I their map, who lye Flat on this bed – So, in his purple wrapt, receive my Lord! By these his thorns, give me his other Crown; And, as to other souls I preach’d thy word, Be this my text, my sermon to mine own, "That he may raise; therefore the Lord throws down."
On the occasion of his death, his friend said,
He was earnest and unwearied in the search of knowledge, with which his vigorous soul is now satisfied, and employed in a continual praise of that God that first breathed it into his active body: that body, which once was a Temple of the Holy Ghost, and is now become a small quantity of Christian dust: –
But I shall see it re-animated.
If you visit London you can still find John Donne at St. Paul’s. He’s been standing there mocking death for the last four centuries. His taunting words are graven there for all the world to read: “He lies here in the dust but beholds Him whose name is Rising.”
Like Donne, we can remind death that our mortality is only temporary. Living as we do on the Easterside of the grave, we can experience Lent as “a continual Good Friday” and do so with a grin as wide as eternity.
- Sermon CXLVI, John Donne ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII., John Donne ↑
- Sermon CXLVI, John Donne ↑
- Donne, Devotions ↑
- “Death’s Duel” John Donne ↑
- The Lives of John Donne, Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker and George Herbert, Izaac Walton ↑
- Holy Sonnet XIV, John Donne ↑
- Holy Sonnet X, John Donne ↑
- Walton, Lives ↑
- Walton, Lives ↑