Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Three Thoughts: On 'Occasional Mercies'

'Occasional mercies' is John Donne's term for what a non-believer would call coincidences - moments of grace which come out of nowhere; reminders of mercy in a passing word or something suddenly heard or seen; flashes of heaven.

Here are his examples:

The air is not so full of motes, of atoms, as the Church is of mercies; and as we can suck in no part of air, but we take in those motes, those atoms; so here in the congregation we cannot suck in a word from the preacher, we cannot speak, we cannot sigh a prayer to God, but that whole breath and air is made of mercy. But we call not upon you from this text, to consider God's ordinary mercy, that which he exhibits to all in the ministry of his Church, nor his miraculous mercy, his extraordinary deliverances of states and churches; but we call upon particular consciences, by occasion of this text, to call to mind God's occasional mercies to them; such mercies as a regenerate man will call mercies, though a natural man would call them accidents, or occurrences, or contingencies.
A man wakes at midnight full of unclean thoughts, and he hears a passing Bell; this is an occasional mercy, if he call that his own knell, and consider how unfit he was to be called out of the world then, how unready to receive that voice, "Fool, this night they shall fetch away thy soul." The adulterer, whose eye waits for the twilight, goes forth, and casts his eyes upon forbidden houses, and would enter, and sees a Lord have mercy upon us upon the door; this is an occasional mercy, if this bring him to know that they who lie sick of the plague within, pass through a furnace, but by God's grace, to heaven; and he without, carries his own furnace to hell, his lustful loins to everlasting perdition.

What an occasional mercy had Balaam when his ass catechised him! What an occasional mercy had one thief when the other catechized him so, Art not thou afraid, being under the same condemnation? What an occasional mercy had all they that saw that when the devil himself fought for the name of Jesus, and wounded the sons of Sceva for exorcising in the name of Jesus, with that indignation, with that increpation, Jesus we know, and Paul we know, but who are ye?

I've posted about some of my own occasional mercies before: this moment in Norway was one, this discovery another. One came on St Margaret's day last week. Francis Thompson saw the Kingdom of God in similar chance moments:

Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!—
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places;–
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry;– and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry;– clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!

And so did G. K. Chesterton (who died on this day in 1936), in the words of King Alfred's vision of the Virgin Mary in the Ballad of the White Horse:

"The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gain,
The heaviest hind may easily
Come silently and suddenly
Upon me in a lane.

"And any little maid that walks
In good thoughts apart,
May break the guard of the Three Kings
And see the dear and dreadful things
I hid within my heart."

No comments: