Finding God in Suffering: John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

Today’s post will be unique in this series, Theology from under the Rubble, for it is the only one that engages with a strictly personal, rather than national, calamity. But, our private tragedies are no less serious for the life of faith — and in some ways they can feel worse, since we are in agony while our neighbours’ lives go on as normal. The English poet and cleric John Donne (1572-1631) experienced one such event in 1623, when he came down with a near-fatal illness. The following year, he published Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which is a series of reflections and prayers about each stage of his sickness. This work, which will be the focus of today’s post, is the expression of one (brilliant and faithful) man’s search for meaning in the midst of his suffering.

The Devotions are divided into twenty-three sections — one for each stage of the illness, from the first onset of symptoms, to his physician’s warnings of a possible recurrence after his recovery. Each of these sections has three parts: a Meditation, in which he introduces the theme; an Expostulation, in which he dialogues with God about the theme; and a Prayer, to offer up the experience to God. At every stage, he seeks to find a connecting point between what he is experiencing and his faith.

For example, in the fifth section, when the physician is called to attend to him, Donne considers the loneliness that accompanied this moment: “As sickness is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness is solitude” (V Meditation). But this leads him to reflect not only on the importance of companionship in life, but, as he brings the experience to God in the Expostulation, also on the importance of divine companionship; for as long as God has not abandoned him, he is not truly alone (V Expostulation). On the flip side, being helped by friends causes Donne to reflect with gratitude that he has such friends, and to think on and pray for those who are less fortunate and receive no earthly help (section VII). And, when he is given medicine to keep the infection away from his heart, he reflects on what kinds of spiritual infections can infect the heart (section XI).

On the whole, Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions can be thought of as an expansion of the ancient spiritual practice known as memento mori, the recollection of death. It’s hard to imagine an aspect of ancient or medieval spirituality less in keeping with the sensibilities of our time and culture than this. We tend to do everything we can to avoid thinking about death. But this denial of mortality is a recent phenomenon. Intentional remembrance of death was or is an important part of ancient Stoic philosophy, Buddhist thought, and early and medieval Christian practice as well. And, while it can definitely be overdone, I would maintain it’s a healthy thing to do. For among the few things we all have in common are death, and the illness and infirmity that prefigure it. In a world like ours, it won’t do anyone any good to imagine death, or even pain as some kind of failure! Irrespective of whether or not one believes in a ‘life after death’ or ‘Last Judgment’, it’s important for us spiritually and psychologically to engage with our mortality so that we can use the days given to us as wisely as we can. So, let’s now take a look at the Devotions through this lens of memento mori.

The theme of mortality comes in right at the start of the work. The very first meditation begins:

O miserable condition of man! which was not imprinted by God, who, as he is immortal himself, had put a coal, a beam of immortality into us, which we might have blown into a flame, but blew it out by our first sin … (I Meditation)

Here, at the outset, Donne is making the case for our mortality, and why we struggle against it. The goal of our creation, he claims, was to be immortal, but rather than fanning the spark of life in us so it would grow into full flame, we snuffed it through sin. And so we go around ignorant of the divine capacities within us:

Thou hast imprinted a pulse in our soul, but we do not examine it; a voice in our conscience, but we do not hearken unto it. We talk it out, we jest it out, we drink it out, we sleep it out; and when we wake, we do not say with Jacob, Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not: but though we might know it, we do not, we will not. (I Expostulation)

Life itself could be a place of theophany for us, if only we had eyes to see. But instead we don’t see God where God is. Because of this, rather than being entitled to a long and full life as we may be tempted to believe, every moment we are alive is, in a sense, a stolen moment, entirely a gift of God’s grace:

We are God’s tenants here, and yet here, he, our landlord, pays us rents; not yearly, nor quarterly, but hourly, and quarterly; every minute he renews his mercy, but we will not understand, lest that we should be converted, and he should heal us. (I Expostulation)

As mortal beings whose existence is entirely contingent, we can expect not only death, but also illness, which is a divine preparation for death (III Meditation). We are to see this as a gift, “in making the memory of this sickness beneficial to me” (III Expostulation). For serious illness reminds us of our lack of control over our lives, our dependence upon others, the shortness of our ‘good years’ — and many other truths we can conveniently forget during times of prosperity and good health.

The memento mori theme pervades the whole work, but nowhere does it come out more than in section XVII, in which the tolling of church bells (an old tradition marking a death) at the lowest point of his illness reminds Donne of his own death. This Meditation is worth quoting in full here, since two of its turns of phrase have since become common idioms:

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

There’s a good reason why this passage has been so influential. It’s a stunning piece of writing and makes two powerful points. First, we have no way of knowing when we will die; the tolling of the parish bell that we hear could in fact be for us. (Today we might think of ambulance sirens instead.) And second, our lives are so interconnected, so dependent on one another, that there is a sense in which whenever the bell tolls, it tolls for us. This is an important reminder for us today as the over six million deaths the pandemic has directly caused have passed without much in the way of collective grief. But each of those losses make us less than what we were.

As an exercise oriented to preparing one’s heart and mind for death, memento mori directs us to repentance and confession of sins. These things get a bad rap in our culture as being negative, but when done right, they are really about clarity and honesty. If we see the world through God’s eyes, we won’t be able to turn away from all of its problems and especially the ways we contribute to them. We see this aspect of the practice in section VI, when, caught by surprise by his physician’s fear for him, Donne becomes afraid that the will die. At this point, he thanks God that he has “given me a repentance not to be repented of” and asks that God will turn his fear away from fear of death and into “a fear of which I may not be afraid.” While Donne understands his sickness to be a divine correction for sin — and we may rightly object to this way of looking at illness, just as Jesus did — this is not understood in entirely dour terms. In section VII, he prays:

… Thou wouldst have thy corrections taste of humiliation, but thou wouldst have them taste of consolation too; taste of danger, but taste of assurance too. …so, O Lord, in these corrections which are the elements of our regeneration, by which our souls are made thine, imprint thy two qualities, those two operations, that, as they scourge us, they may scourge us into the way to thee; that when they have showed us that we are nothing in ourselves, they may also show us, that thou art all things unto us.

There is “humiliation” and “danger” but also “consolation” and “assurance.”

So, what might all of this have to say to us today in our own experiences? A few years ago, at the end of my series on sacred practices, I concluded that anything in life could be a sacred practice if we chose to see it as such. And while I had in mind ‘positive’ things, like a walk in the park or a drink with a good friend, John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions — and indeed the whole tradition of memento mori — reminds us that this is no less true for the difficult things in life. A God whom we only meet when things are good is a fair-weather God unworthy of the name ‘God’. As challenging as they may be, times of illness or loss, of contraction and disappointment, are as much a part of the human experience as times of health, prosperity, expansion, and joy. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we can and must meet God in these experiences.

The approach Donne takes in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions can be a helpful one for us. In every stage of our experience we can first, notice and describe what is happening (Meditation), second, dialogue with God about it (Expostulation), and third, offer it up to God (Prayer). It’s a process that’s actually reminiscent of how some psychotherapists suggest we undertake shadow work: We identify what we’re experiencing, examine it and our feelings about it with curiosity, before dis-identifying ourselves from it, letting go of it. It’s a practice that can allow us to experience our feelings fully while not given them the last word. So, Donne felt an instinctive fear of death in the depths of his illness, but through working with it as he did, that was transformed into something bigger. So too can we, with God’s help, transform our own experiences, no matter how challenging, into places of encountering God. This is hard work, and may not be possible for us in the moment. But, like the process of feeling and articulating our grief (as we saw in the example of Lamentations), and reminding ourselves that our earthly allegiances are always secondary and life in this world is always going to let us down (as we saw in the example of The City of God), seeking to find meaning — and God — in the gritty details of our experiences can be a powerful way of responding to crisis with faith.

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