The Art of Dying features John Donne in a chapter on the history of the Christian death. Donne’s story is striking for two reasons. First, he wrote plenty, and wrote well, about death. Second, he performed his own death in the spirit of the times; perhaps he even exaggerated that spirit. The Art of Dying tells the story of Donne’s death, but there’s more to say about Donne’s writing on death.
At age 54, Donne became dangerously ill. The plague had struck London, and Donne feared that he had not escaped its terror. But while the sickness ravaged his body, Donne’s sharp mind was recording and pondering every moment. As his biographer wrote, God “preserved his spirit, and kept his intellectuals as clear and perfect as when that sickness first seized his body.” Shortly after he recovered, Donne published Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.
Donne’s Devotions was originally published in the late Middle Ages, and contemporary readers can easily get lost in Donne’s antique prose. Join me each Monday, as I feature a portion of this great devotional work, updated in modern language.
The First Meditation: On Physical and Spiritual Sickness
Man’s condition is always changing and, as a result, is miserable. One minute I am well, the next ill. I am surprised to suddenly feel sick, and can think of no cause. I can’t even tell what ails me. We study our health. We deliberate about our diets and air and exercise. We cut and polish the building blocks of our bodies. We make of our health a long and a regular work. But in a minute, an illness demolishes it all. This sickness we couldn’t prevent, for all our diligence and curiosity, and it comes unsuspected. Disease calls our name, grabs hold of us, possesses and destroys us before we know it.
So too, God placed a spark of immortality in us, which we might have fanned into a flame. But, instead, our first sin snuffed it out. Despite our best efforts at spiritual health, we turned ourselves into beggars by chasing after false riches. Now, we do not only physically die, but we are tortured by spiritual disease. Before we are even sick, we are pre-afflicted and super-afflicted with suspicions and fears of sickness. We check our pulse and our blood pressure when we are not even sure we are ill.
Dear God, why is not my soul as sensible as my body? Why doesn’t my soul have these inklings of sin, like my body senses sickness coming upon it? Why is there not always a pulse in my soul that quickens when sin’s temptation is approaching? Why do I not weep more frequently over my spiritual sickness?
Does God pretend to make a watch, and leave out the spring? Does he create cogs in the machine of the soul or the body and leave out the grace that should move them? Does he give us grace only once? Surely not. We are all prodigal sons, but we are not disinherited. We may have badly used what he has given us, but we are still recipients of his gifts. We are God’s tenants here, yet he is paying us rent! Every hour he is giving to us. Every minute even he renews his mercy.
Gracious and eternal God, enable me by your grace to look forward to my end, and to look backward too, to the mercy you have given me from the very beginning. Deliver me, O God, from my fears. Assure me that you are present with me in every illness, in the face of every temptation. If I hear your voice and run to you, Lord, keep me from falling, or pick me up again. Lord Jesus, you know all of my weaknesses, for you had them. You know the weight of all my sins, for you paid the dear price for them. Be present in my weakness and give me your strength. Amen.