Sunday, 31 March 2013

John Donne's last Easter sermon: 'Devotion is no marginal note, no interlineary gloss, no parenthesis that may be left out'

John Donne gave his last Easter sermon at St Paul's, London, on March 31, 1630.  He preached on the text He is not here, for he is risen, as he said; Come, see the place where the Lord lay, the words spoken in Matthew's Gospel by the angel to the women at the empty tomb.  Donne's sermon discusses a number of aspects of this moment in the gospel, but I've chosen to post just the first section, where he reflects on the devotion of the women and the fact that they sought the tomb 'early in the morning'.  I've also included a passage towards the end of the homily, which echoes two of Donne's most famous works, 'Death be not proud' and Meditation XVII, 'ask not for whom the bell tolls'; John Donne died a year to the day after giving this sermon, on March 31, 1631.

The whole text can be found here.

He is not here, for he is risen, as he said; Come, see the place where the Lord lay.

These are words spoken by the angel of heaven, to certain devout women, who, not yet considering the resurrection of Christ, came with a pious intention to do an office of respect, and civil honour to the body of their Master, which they meant to embalm in the monument where they thought to find it. How great a compass God went in this act of the resurrection! Here was God, the God of life, dead in a grave, and here was a man, a dead man, risen out of the grave; here are angels of heaven employed in so low an office, as to catechise women, and women employed in so high an office, as to catechise the apostles. I chose this verse out of the body of the story of the resurrection, because in this verse the act of Christ's rising, (which we celebrate this day) is expressly mentioned, surrexit enim, for he is risen: which word stands as a candle, that shows itself, and all about it, and will minister occasion of illustrating your understanding, of establishing your faith, of exalting your devotion in some other things about the resurrection, than fall literally within the words of this verse. For, from this verse we must necessarily reflect, both upon the persons (they to whom, and they by whom the words were spoken) and upon the occasion given. I shall not therefore now stand to divide the words into their parts and branches, at my first entering into them, but handle them, as I shall meet them again anon, springing out, and growing up from the body of the story; for the context is our text, and the whole resurrection is the work of the day, though it be virtually, implicitly contracted into this verse, He is not here, for he is risen, as he said; Come, and see the place where the Lord lay.

Our first consideration is upon the persons; and those we find to be angelical women, and evangelical angels: angels made evangelists, to preach the Gospel of the resurrection, and women made angels, (so as John Baptist is called an angel, and so as the seven bishops are called angels) that is, instructors of the church; and to recompense that observation, that never good angel appeared in the likeness of woman, here are good women made angels, that is, messengers, publishers of the greatest mysteries of our religion. For, howsoever some men out of a petulancy and wantonness of wit, and out of the extravagancy of paradoxes, and such singularities, have called the faculties, and abilities of women in question, even in the root thereof, in the reasonable and immortal soul, yet that one thing alone hath been enough to create a doubt, (almost an assurance in the negative) whether St. Ambrose's Commentaries upon the Epistles of St. Paul, be truly his or no, that in that book there is a doubt made, whether the woman were created according to God's image; therefore, because that doubt is made in that book, the book itself is suspected not to have had so great, so grave, so constant an author as St. Ambrose was; no author of gravity, of piety, of conversation in the Scriptures could admit that doubt, whether woman were created in the image of God, that is, in possession of a reasonable and an immortal soul.

The faculties and abilities of the soul appear best in affairs of state, and in ecclesiastical affairs; in matter of government, and in matter of religion; and in neither of these are we without examples of able women. For, for state affairs, and matter of government, our age hath given us such a queen, as scarce any former king hath equalled; and in the Venetian story, I remember, that certain matrons of that city were sent by commission, in quality of ambassadors, to an empress with whom that state had occasion to treat; and in the stories of the Eastern parts of the world, it is said to be in ordinary practice to send women for ambassadors. And then, in matters of religion, women have evermore had a great hand, though sometimes on the left, as well as on the right hand. Sometimes their abundant wealth, sometimes their personal affections to some church-men, sometimes their irregular and indiscreet zeal hath made them great assistants to great heretics; as St. Jerome tells us of Helena to Simon Magus, and so was Lucilia to Donatus, so another to Mahomet, and others to others. But so have they been also great instruments for the advancing of true religion, as St. Paul testifies in their behalf, at Thessalonica, Of the chief women, not a few; great, and many. For many times women have the proxies of greater persons than themselves, in their bosoms; many times women have voices, where they should have none; many times the voices of great men, in the greatest of civil, or ecclesiastical assemblies, have been in the power and disposition of women.

Hence is it, that in the old epistles of the bishops of Rome, when they needed the court, (as, at first they needed courts as much, as they brought courts to need them at last) we find as many letters of those popes to the emperors' wives, and the emperors' mothers, and sisters, and women of other names, and interests in the emperors' favours and affections, as to the emperors themselves. St. Jerome writ many letters to divers holy ladies...

If women have submitted themselves to as good an education as men, God forbid their sex should prejudice them, for being examples to others. Their sex? no, nor their sins neither: for, it is St. Jerome's note, That of all those women, that are named in Christ's pedigree in the Gospel, there is not one, (his only blessed Virgin Mother excepted) upon whom there is not some suspicious note of incontinency. Of such women did Christ vouchsafe to come; He came of woman so, as that he came of nothing but woman; of woman, and not of man. Neither do we read of any woman in the Gospel, that assisted the persecutors of Christ, or furthered his afflictions; even Pilate's wife dissuaded it. Woman, as well as man, was made after the image of God, in the creation; and in the resurrection, when we shall rise such as we were here, her sex shall not diminish her glory: of which, she receives one fair beam, and inchoation in this text, that the purpose of God, is, even by the ministry of angels, communicated to women. But what women? for their preparation, their disposition is in this text too; such women, as were not only devout, but sedulous, diligent, constant, perseverant in their devotion; to such women God communicated himself; which is another consideration in these persons.

As our Saviour Christ was pleased, that one of these women should be celebrated by name, for another act upon him, Mary Magdalen, and that wheresoever his Gospel was preached, her act should be remembered, so the rest, with her, are worthy to be known and celebrated by their names; therefore we consider, Quae, and quales; first who they were, and then what they were, their names first, and then their conditions. There is an historical relation, and observation, That though there be divers kingdoms in Europe, in which the crowns may fall upon women, yet, for some ages, they did not, and when they did, it was much at one time, and all upon women of one name, Mary. It was so with us in England, and in Scotland it was so; so in Denmark, and in Hungary it was so too; all four, Marys. Though regularly women should not preach, yet when these legati a latere, these angels from heaven did give orders to women, and made them apostles to the apostles, the commission was to women of that name, Mary; for, though our expositors dispute whether the blessed Virgin Mary were there then, when this passed at the sepulchre, yet of Mary Magdalen, and Mary the mother of James, there can be no doubt. Indeed it is a noble, and a comprehensive name, Mary. It is the name of woman, in general; for, when Adam says of Eve, She shall be called woman, in the Arabic translation, there is this name, She shall be called Mary; and the Arabic is, perchance, a dialect of the Hebrew. But in pure, and original Hebrew, the word signifies exaltation, and whatsoever is best in the kind thereof. This is the name of that sister of Aaron, and Moses, that with her choir of women assisted at that eucharistical sacrifice, that triumphant song of thanksgiving, upon the destruction, the subversion, the summersion of Egypt in the Red Sea. Her name was Miriam; and Miriam and Mary is the same name in women, as Josuah and Jesus is the same name to men. The word denotes greatness, not only in power, but in wisdom, and learning too; and so signifies often prophets and doctors; and so falls fitliest upen these blessed women, who, in that sense, were all made Marys, messengers, apostles to the apostles; in which sense, even those women were made Marys, (that is, messengers of the resurrection) who, no doubt, had other names of their own... That blessing which God gave to these Marys, which was, to know more of Christ, than their former teachers knew, he will also be pleased to give to the greatest of that name amongst us, that she may know more of Christ, than her first teachers knew. And we pass on, from the names, to the conditions of these women.

And first we consider their sedulity; sedulity, that admits no intermission, no interruption, no discontinuance, no tepidity, no indifferency in religious offices. Consider we therefore their sedulity if we can. I say, if we can; because if a man should sit down at a bee-hive, or at an ant-hill, and determine to watch such an ant, or such a bee, in the working thereof, he would find that bee, or that ant so sedulous, so serious, so various, so concurrent with others, so contributary to others, as that he would quickly lose his marks, and his sight of that ant, or that bee; so if we fix our consideration upon these devout women, and the sedulity of their devotion, so as the several evangelists present it unto us, we may easily lose our sight, and hardly know which was which, or, at what time she or she came to the sepulchre. They came in the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn, towards the first day of the week, says St. Matthew: They came very early in the morning, upon the first day of the week, the sun being then risen, says St. Mark; They prepared their spices, and rested the Sabbath, and came early the next day, says St. Luke; They came the first day, when it was yet dark, says St. John. From Friday evening, till Sunday morning, they were sedulous, busy upon this service...

Beloved, true devotion is a serious, a sedulous, an impatient thing. He that said in the Gospel, fast twice a week, was but a Pharisee; he that can reckon his devout actions, is no better; he that can tell how often he hath thought upon God to-day, hath not thought upon him often enough. It is St. Augustine's holy circle, to pray, that we may hear sermons profitably, and to hear sermons that we learn to pray acceptably. Devotion is no marginal note, no interlineary gloss, no parenthesis that may be left out; it is no occasional thing, no conditional thing; 'I will go, if I like the preacher, if the place, if the company, if the weather'; but it is of the body of the text, and lays upon us an obligation of fervour and of continuance. This we have in this example of these, not only evangelical, but evangelistical (preaching) women; and thus much more, that as they were sedulous and diligent after, so they were early, and begun betimes; for, howsoever the evangelists may seem to vary, in the point of time, when they came, they all agree they came early, which is another exaltation of devotion...

Even this woman, Mary Magdalen, be her sin what you will, came early to Christ; early, as soon as he afforded her any light. Christ says, in the person of Wisdom, love them that love me, and they that seek me early shall find me; and a good soul will echo back that return of David, O God, thou art my God, early will I seek thee; my soul thirsteth for thee; my flesh longeth for thee; and double that echo with Esay, With my soul have I desired thee in the night, and with my spirit within me, will I seek thee early.

Now, what is this early seeking of God? First, there is a general rule given by Solomon, Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth; submit thyself to a religious discipline betimes. But then, in that there is a now inserted into that rule of Solomon's, (Remember now thy Creator, in the days of thy youth), there is an intimation, that there is a youth in our age, and an earliness acceptable to God, in every action; we seek him early, if we seek him at the beginning of every undertaking. If I awake at midnight, and embrace God in mine arms, that is, receive God into my thoughts, and pursue those meditations, by such a having had God in my company, I may have frustrated many temptations that would have attempted me, and perchance prevailed upon me, if I had been alone, for solitude is one of the devil's scenes; and, I am afraid there are persons that sin oftener alone, than in company; but that man is not alone that hath God in his sight, in his thought. Thou preventest me with the blessings of goodness, says David to God. I come not early enough to God, if I stay till his blessings in a prosperous fortune prevent me, and lead me to God; I should come before that. The days of affliction have prevented me, says Job. I come not early enough to God, if I stay till his judgments prevent me, and whip me to him; I should come before that. But, if I prevent the night watches, and the dawning of the morning, if in the morning my prayer prevent thee O God, (which is a high expression of Davids, That I should wake before God wakes, and even prevent his preventing grace, before it be declared in any outward act, that day) if before blessing or cross fall upon me, I surrender myself entirely unto thee, and say, Lord here I lie, make thou these sheets my sheets of penance, in inflicting a long sickness, or my winding-sheet, in delivering me over to present death, here I lie, make thou this bed mine altar, and bind me to it in the cords of decrepitness, and bedridness, or throw me off of it into the grave and dust of expectation, here I lie, do thou choose whether I shall see any to-morrow in this world, or begin my eternal day, this night, thy kingdom come, thy will be done; when I seek God, merely for love of him, and his glory, without relation to his benefits or to his corrections, this is that early seeking, which we consider in those blessed women, whose sedulity and earnestness, when they were come, and acceleration and earliness, in their coming, having already considered, pass we now to the ad quid, to what purpose, and with what intention they came, for in that alone, there are divers exaltations of their devotion.

In the first verse of this chapter it is said, They came to see the sepulchre; even to see the sepulchre was an act of love, and every act of love to Christ, is devotion. There is a love that will make one kiss the case of a picture, though it be shut; there is a love that will melt one's bowels, if he do but pass over, or pass by the grave of his dead friend. But their end was not only to see the sepulchre, but to see whether the sepulchre were in such state, as that they might come to their end, which was, To embalm their Master's body.


His rising declares him to be the Son of God, who therefore can, and will, and to be that Jesus, an actual Redeemer, and therefore hath already raised us. To what? To that renovation, to that new creation, which is so excellently expressed by Severianus, as makes us sorry we have no more of his; Mutator ordo rerim, The whole frame! and course of nature is changed; Sepulchrum non mortuum, sed mortem devorat, The grave, (now, since Christ's resurrection, and ours in him) does not bury the dead man, but death himself; my bell tolls for death, and my bell rings out for death, and not for me that die; for I live, even in death; but death dies in me, and hath no more power over me.


Let nothing therefore that can fall upon thee, despoil thee of the dignity and constancy of a Christian; howsoever thou be severed from those things, which thou makest account do make thee up, severed from a wife by divorce, from a child by death, from goods by fire, or water, from an office by just, or by unjust displeasure (which is the heavier but the happier case), yet never think thyself severed from thy head Christ Jesus, nor from being a lively member of his body. Though thou be a brother of dragons and a companion of owls, though thy harp be turned into mourning, and thine organ into the voice of them that weep, nay, Though the Lord kill thee, yet trust in him. Thy Saviour when he lay dead in the grave, was still the same Lord; thou, when thou art enwrapped, and interred in confusion, art still the same Christian.


If these meditations have raised you from the bed of sin, in any holy purpose, this is one of your resurrections, and you have kept your Easter day well. To which, he, whose name is Amen, say Amen, our blessed Saviour Christ Jesus, in the power of his Father, and in the operation of his Spirit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just beautiful.