Sunday, May 4, 2014

Christian poets: John Donne: Holy Sonnets 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 usurped town, to 'another due, 
Labor to 'admit You, but O, 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 I 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.
     Donne begins this poem by making a strange appeal to God -- "Batter my heart". This is a far cry from our most common requests -- calm my heart, mend my heart, or keep my heart. To batter is to break down and destroy; to grind down to oblivion. It means that what the heart treasures most may very well be subjected to severe suffering and loss.
     I think that crafting a poem is very like creating a sculpture. One must carve with language to create not just a picture, but a thing. So, with this first word, "batter," Donne begins to chisel away at his thesis -- God must first work within our hearts to destroy the negative effects of sin before he can begin to work on rebuilding us into the likeness of his son. Philippians 2:13 reminds us that "it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." God is performing a great remodeling project in our hearts, but first he must demolish the old and clear out the space before he can install the new and eternal.
     Donne appeals to Triune God ("three-personed God") to do this work within us. The verbs he chooses in the lines that follow illustrate the Trinity's individual efforts  as well as God's collective work. The Son knocks, the Spirit breathes, the Father shines. God begins to enact his plan to mend the fallen soul. His power then breaks sin's hold as Christ was broken for us, blows away our faults by the wind of the Spirit, and burns away the dross of our lives by the Father's refiner's fire -- all this to make us new. At last, the old is gone, the new has come. (2Cor. 5:17)
     Certainly our own resources are not equal to this task. Reason (correct thinking and the knowledge gained through learning) would seem to be able to affect change, but it cannot. It too is captive to sin and proves weak or unfaithful. Our best laid plans so often go wrong when we do not surrender to the wise and worthwhile plans of God to mold us into Christ likeness.
     Finally, Donne reminds us that the greatest desire of man's heart is to be loved by God: "Yet dearly' I love you and would be loved fain." But sin, whether we realize it or not, acts as a barrier to that love. In fact, we are engaged to it; our broken will has been unwittingly surrendered to a false lover. We must be divorced from sin so that we may be married to Christ. And in this love resides one of the great paradoxes of Christianity -- we are bound to Christ in love, which sets us free to love. We are only made pure by partaking of his true romance. The sculpture (but, in reality, the persons) God has formed us into comprise our new identity as his bride the church, which he has loved, renewed and redeemed "so that he might present the church to himself in splendor..." (Ephesians 5:27, ESV) In light of this glorious goal, may we (with Donne) humbly pray that we may be brought low.