Friday, May 8, 2009

Devotions on Emergent Occasions

If each era has its own preoccupation, it would be safe to say that ours is not death. Modern medicine, longevity and no World War on our front steps have made it easy to pass by this important part of life, making this book written centuries ago by John Donne all the more timely.

Written while on his sickbed, this collection of devotions cover 23 different aspects of sickness and death. Whether it be "the consultation of the doctors" or "upon hearing the church bells ringing" Donne first ponders the topic, weaving an argument that draws the attention to the goodness of God, then expostulates upon it and closes with a prayer.

My favorite meditations have been on sleepless nights and the ringing of the church bells. Rather than complaining about wakeful nights, Donne turns them into a chance to meditate upon the sleep of the beloved. Why does God not grant him this sleep? Is he not among the beloved? After many lovely twists he ends by turning the cry of the beloved "I sleep, but my heart wakes" to "I wake, but my heart sleeps." Concluding that though God has not granted him the quiet repose of the body, his soul sleeps peacefully in the love and will of God.

"No man is an island, entire to himself....therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee... every man's death diminishes me" These famous lines are in reference to the common 17th century practice of ringing the church bell when someone fell dangerously sick or died. Rather than sending to ask for whom it rang, he used it as a reminder of the imminence of death to each one of us and occasion to plead for the soul of the departing . We are all part of frail humanity and every occasion to ponder the brevity of life should be taken with gratitude.

In this way, Donne repeatedly takes each trial and hope of sickness and impending death and turns it into a chance for meditation.

photo by Federico Belloli

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