Daily Devotional 3-31-17

Remembering the Ministry of John Donne

It is the anniversary of the passing from this world of that great preacher-poet of St. Paul’s, John Donne (1573-31 March 1631). His name appears today on the liturgical calendar of many English-speaking churches. John Donne (rhymes with “sun”) was one of the greatest preachers of his age. His sermons have become masterpieces of English literature. While his prose is outdated, sometimes inaccessible without further study of the Elizabethan vernacular (the highest point of the English language; and scholars remind us that the coachman outside of St. Paul’s spoke the same language as the Dean of St. Paul’s, Donne), his messages remain timeless. Indeed, many of our phrases today, even titles of other great pieces of literature, came from Donne’s sermons (e.g., “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, the bell tolls for thee”).

A gathering of his work is available online here. I offer this first stanza of a hymn by Donne during the illness that would ultimately take his life as he sought to convalesce at his daughter’s home.

HYMN TO GOD, MY GOD, IN MY SICKNESS

   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 the instrument here at the door,

And what I must do then, think here before.

As much as I love those lines, the best-known hymn is:

A HYMN TO GOD THE FATHER

Wilt thou forgive that sin, where I begun,

which is my sin, though it were done before?

Wilt thou forgive those sins 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, by which I won

others to sin, and made my sin their door?

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did not 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;

swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son

shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore.

And having done that, thou hast done,

I fear no more.

Some resources for A Hymn to God the Father

I consider it to be the finest Lenten hymn available. There have been some remarkable scores and even contemporary folk arrangements on this Donne masterpiece. From Bach to Buddy Greene to readings by Richard Burton, I offer these resources:

A Psalm from the Daily Office for today draws me to the life of Donne. And I offer it as a Biblical focus of meditation for all of those who struggle through life with depression, with regret for the sins of youth, and for the day-to-day struggles with illness, all of which John Donne knew. Yet, we see in Donne an example of the ruling motif of the Gospel of the cross: that which was designed to destroy us has become in the hands of a sovereign and loving God the very thing that exalts us.

One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; To behold the fair beauty of the Lord * and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter; * he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling and set me high upon a rock. Psalm 27:5-7

Note: I am a member of the John Donne Society. I commend our page to you for further research.

Here is a piece I wrote on incorporating the preaching and writing of John Donne (and the use of English Literature) in the U.S. Armed Forces Chaplaincy: http://www.academia.edu/7881532/John_Donne_in_the_Trenches_Moral_Leadership_and_the_Chaplain_as_the_Living_Repository_of_Western_Civilization

From MichaelMilton.org