Some days I find it harder to focus during Morning Prayer than others. This morning was one such time. I found myself lingering over the fact that today in the Church calendar, we commemorate the life of the poet and priest, John Donne.
I remembered how studying some of Donne’s poems at A-Level opened up a new world for me – one that was certainly key in my decision to go on to study Psychology. In fact, John Donne shaped my adult life in more ways than one. For when Christopher and I met as guests at a wedding, we spent an extraordinarily long time together talking about Donne and the metaphysical poets. It was then that I think we both realised that we might just be seeing rather a lot more of one another!
John Donne was born in 1571. As a young man, religion played very little part in his eventful – and flamboyant – life. By the age of thirty, in addition to study, he’d been a ‘gentleman explorer’ sailing to Cadiz and the Azores; and an Member of Parliament. And he’d briefly been imprisoned in the Fleet – having confessed to his secret marriage to Ann More. Ann was to die in 1617, after giving birth to their 11th child, who was stillborn.
Donne’s faith in God gradually came to the fore, and after much heart-searching he was ordained into the Church of England at the age of 43. Donne later became Dean of St. Paul’s, where he is buried.
John Donne’s love poems, religious poetry and sermons seem to reflect the different stages of his own life’s journey, with its various joys, mistakes, passions and sorrows. Yet, unlike other poets of his time, who sharply divided their secular and religious writing and experiences, Donne seems to entwine them deeply.
In his Holy Sonnet 14, for example, where Donne cries to God, voicing the paradox of faith that we can only be truly free if we allow God to overpower us, he does so in accents of physical love:
‘Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me’.
And Donne recognises how it is his experiences of human love that have drawn him to God. He writes in The Good Morrow:
‘If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desir’d and got, ‘twas but a dreame of thee’.
John Donne understood, I think, something very simple: that life isn’t compartmentalised between the secular and religious; that it is in all parts of our lives and in all our experiences that God is with us.
As Christopher and I prayed this morning:
‘This I call to mind,
And therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning;
Great is your faithfulness.’