Today, March 31, the Anglican church commemorates John Donne, poet, soldier, adventurer, lawyer and eventually Anglican priest. Donne was born into a large Roman Catholic family in 1572 when Elizabeth I was queen and Catholics were punished for following their religion. When Donne was 12 he began his studies first at Oxford, then at Cambridge, but was unable to graduate from either university because he wouldn’t subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. [Editor’s note: The 39 Articles laid out the foundational beliefs of the Church of England; assent was used as a litmus test for loyalty to the Crown and government.] His younger brother Henry was incarcerated in Newgate prison for harbouring a seminary priest and there died of the plague. It must have been clear that the way forward was barred to an ambitious young man and so, in his early twenties, while studying law at Lincoln’s Inn, he became an Anglican. Still in his twenties he spent two years fighting Spain as a “gentleman adventurer” sailing with the English expedition which sacked Cadiz and joining in the hunt for Spanish treasure ships in the Azores before settling down as Secretary to Sir Thomas Edgerton, Keeper of the Great Seal. The portrait above of John Donne painted in 1595 captures the essence of this fashionable young man posing as a melancholy lover. His contemporary, Richard Baker, described him as “not dissolute, but very neat; a great visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Plays, a great writer of conceited verses.” I’m guessing that he was in the audience at the Globe Theatre for some of Shakespeare’s plays.
Unfortunately, his next adventure, a secret marriage to seventeen-year-old Anne More, his lifelong love, brought poverty and great hardship. Anne’s father had him dismissed, dashing his career as a civil servant. Dependant on the charity of friends and patrons, John nevertheless fathered 12 children, 5 of whom died in childhood. However, he wrote prodigiously at this period, love poems, religious treatises and funeral tributes. Finally, after much urging he took Holy Orders, being appointed Chaplain to James I in 1615 and then Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral where he remained until his death in 1631.
I have several anthologies containing poems and other works by John Donne, but two of the books on my shelf perfectly illustrate the contrasting streams of ideas produced by this thoughtful, complicated, sensual and often tormented human. One is English Love Poems, a book which I gave my husband before we married while I was still a student. The other is The Prayers of John Donne, bought second hand in my retirement years. You are probably familiar with some of his secular poems, so I want to share today some of Donne’s thoughts about prayer.
Donne writes that the ability to pray deeply, meaningfully, with total attention is a gift not given to all of us. I find it very comforting that Donne too found prayer difficult. “I turne to hearty and earnest prayer to God, and I fix my thoughts strongly (as I thinke) upon him, and before I have perfected one petition, one period of my prayer … Spiritus soporis, the spirit of slumber closes mine eyes, and I pray drousily; Or Spiritus vertiginis, the spirit of deviation, and vaine repetition, and I pray giddily, and circularly, and returne againe and againe to what I have said before, and perceive not that I do so …” Or in another sermon “ I throw myself downe in my chamber, and I call in, and invite God and his Angels thither, and when the y are there I neglect God and his Angels for the noise of a Flie, for the rattling of a Coach, for the whining of a doore …”
Nevertheless, however bad we are at it, prayer should be constant and careful, not just something you do in church. “The master of a family”, who is a Bishop in his house, builds a Church in his home whenever he prays. “When thou kneelest down at thy bedside, to shut up the day at night, or to beginne it in the morning, thy servants, thy children, thy little flock about thee, there thou buildest a Church too: And therefore sanctifie that place …” When I create a sacred space in my house I like to think of Donne building a Church in his home so many years ago, and of the many times he must have prayed in sorrow after the death of a child, his wife, his many friends and his family.
Prayer is hard, but God will forgive and comfort you, says Donne, if you pray sincerely, accepting your imperfections and trusting in God’s mercy, without thinking your purity can equal God’s, or condemning others for being less pure than you.
Donne is unusual for his time in suggesting that short prayers might be preferable to long ones, for practical reasons. “ I would also rather make short prayers than extend them, though God can neither be surprised nor besieged; for long prayers have more of the man, as ambition of eloquence, and a complacencie in the work, and more of the Devil by often distractions: for, after in the beginning we have well entreated God to hearken, we speak no more to him.” This is advice which I will bear in mind the next time I lead the prayers of the people. Donne was right: a delight in eloquence is a dangerous trap.
Although private prayers are good, Donne stressed the importance of regular prayer with the community of believers. This is relevant to us today when gatherings are forbidden and our church is locked. We have been instinctively turning to on-line prayer in groups and virtual services via Zoom. Chamber prayers, says Donne, are like drinking from a tap, prayer in a congregation is like drinking from the cistern itself, “for when he is become part of the congregation, he is joint-tenant with them, and the devotion of all the Congregation, and the blessings upon all the Congregation, are his blessings and his devotions.” God listens, he will come down to meet us but we must lift our petitions to him in humble and fervent prayer if we “would have him fight our battyls or remove our calamities.”
When Donne knew he was dying he commissioned Nicholas Stone to sculpt a statue which still stands in St Paul’s Cathedral. You can see in the picture that he is wearing a shroud. Isaak Walton, Donne’s first biographer relates how Donne had a wooden pedestal roughly fashioned into the shape of an urn and proceeded to pose upon it clad in his own winding sheet: “…he thus stood, with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might show his lean, pale and death-like face, which was purposely turned towards the East, from whence he expected the second coming of his and our Saviour Jesus.” Donne was not afraid of dying. When his life was at a low ebb in 1609 he wrote the sonnet which starts “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,”
I love John Donne for his humour, his passion and his humanity. He expressed many profound truths about prayer: Prayer is hard, prayer creates a holy place in your home, prayer must be thoughtful for “God will scarce hearken to sudden inconsidered, irreverent prayers”, God is attentive and loves to hear us.
Some of Donne’s prayers are written in verse. Here to finish this reflection are two examples from his Divine Poems, composed after 1610, but not published until 1633, two years after his death. The first, titled Hymn to the God the Father has delightful puns on his name. You can listen to a version set to music in a performance by the Chapel Royal:
Here are the first and last verses
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, 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.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But 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.
The second poem, Batter My Heart is powerful, a love poem to God
Batter my heart, three-person’d 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 usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d 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.
“No man is an island,” wrote Donne in probably his most famous reflection. It’s possible to feel a connection with John Donne, even 400 years later and many miles from London. He speaks to me, and I hope to you too.
— Ann Elbourne