John Donne (1572-1631) was a Roman Catholic convert to Anglicanism. In his youth he was, shall we say, a familiar of pub-keepers and popular with the ladies, and was known for his bawdy poetry. After his marriage, however, he matured and developed an interest in theology. Even so it took those around him nearly a decade to convince him to be ordained. He became Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and was a popular preacher in his day.
The man who advised the world “never to send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” writes with great joy and even earthy humor. Donne is incredibly passionate. His religious poetry, some of it, is so sensuous even modern readers sometimes find it shocking or at least a little uncomfortable. Yet at the same time he had an intellect that few in his day could withstand (or can today). The thoughts in his sermons (as I read the excerpts) are like gemstones — every paragraph a string of pearls.
Here are some quotations. First from A Sermon for Easter Day, 1628:
“What is it ‘to know Him as we are known?’… a comprehensive knowledge of God it cannot be. To comprehend is to know a thing as well as that thing can be known; and we can never know God so…
As God knows me, so I shall know God; but I shall not know God so as God knows me. It is not quantum, but sicut; not as much, but as truly…
And so it shall be a knowledge so like His knowledge, as it shall produce a love like His love, and we shall love Him as He loves us…
What a holiday that will be, which no working day shall ever follow!”
“If God could be seen and known in hell, hell in an instant would be heaven.”
On the limits of reason: “We may search so far and reason so long of faith and grace, as that we may lose not only them but even our reason too, and sooner become mad than good.”
A Prayer in Infirmity: “O most mighty and most merciful God, who, though thou have taken me off of my feet, hast not taken me off of my foundation, which is thyself; who, though thou have removed me from that upright form in which I could stand and see thy throne, the heavens, yet hast not removed from me that light by which I can lie and see thyself; who, though thou have weakened my bodily knees, that they cannot bow to thee, hast yet left me the knees of my heart, which are bowed unto thee evermore; as thou hast made this bed thine altar, make me thy sacrifice, and as thou makes thy Son Christ Jesus the priest, so make me his deacon, to minister to him in a cheerful surrender of my body and soul to thy pleasure, by his hands.”
…and one of his best-known works: the Holy Sonnet #14:
“Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As 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 usurpt town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end,
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed 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.”