Monday, April 28, 2014

Christian Poets: John Donne, Holy Sonnets I

Thou hast made me,and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
I run to death, and death meets me as fast, 
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
I dare not move my dim eyes any way, 
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
Only thou art above, and when towards thee 
By thy leave I can look, I rise again; 
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me
The not one hour myself I can sustain.
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art, 
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

     John Donne (1572-1631) is known for his love poems; first, for his poems about his love for women, and second, for his poems about God's love for him. The poem above is from those collected after his death in the volume Divine Poems, and is the first of the 19 Holy Sonnets. These poems address the universal questions of life and death, creation and decay, significance and loss. Eternal life is contrasted against mortal brevity; human pain against the joy that never ends.
     Donne begins by asking a question about mortality: Does what God has made (particularly in the case of humanity) ever truly pass away? It seems as if anything God has formed with his hands should innately have an eternal quality about it, coming as it does from the Father of Lights. Mankind was given the breath of life on the day of his creation, and this breath will never cease to be. In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher reminds us that God has "set eternity in our hearts." Our souls will never die, but our physical bodies are quite another story. We are on a collision course with death.
     But, even so, we have a bigger problem: because of sin, our souls have already died and we cannot, in or by our mortal life affect its repair. Only God, through the power of what St. Augustine called the "first resurrection" can give our souls the life they lost so long ago. As for the body, Paul writes, "What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable." Yet Donne finds, as we all do, that the impact of sin, though forgiven, still lingers, and is subject to Satan's subtle temptations. On our own, he laments, we cannot sustain a holy life for even one small hour.
     Yet here it is that God's great movement of grace, as strong as that cosmic force of magnetism, flows from him into the feebleness of our lives. His grace is strong enough to overthrow evil powers and influences. His grace causes us to cling to him because he has bound himself to us. But in the church today we have co-opted a faded view of this grace. The word is tossed about like a tennis ball, the universal answer to every problem, physical and spiritual. Grace is being worn at the edges and its true meaning and power are fading even in its over familiarity. 
     We must, therefore, heed Donne's lesson -- never make grace into something less than what it is, something spread in a general and whimsical way over the Christian landscape.We must fly on the wings of the Holy Spirit to the place where we may receive and understand the truth of grace for what it truly is -- the power and presence of God that covers all our sin. There, grace never lets us go; it binds us to the heart of God by a power that eradicates our sin and raises both body and soul from death's decay. 

Holy Sonnet I, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry

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