The BEST: John Donne, “Meditation XVII,” Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions
Summary: In 1623, John Donne – Catholic recusant, poet, rake, soldier, prisoner, Member of Parliament, and ultimately Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral – fell seriously ill and almost died. As he slowly returned to health, he composed his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, a remarkable spiritual journey through sickness and recovery that explores the meaning of mortality and suffering as tools to guide individuals towards God, their creator and ultimate home. Each of the 32 “Meditations” of which it is composed links a stage of his illness – “The Phisician comes,” “I sleepe not day or night,” “They warn me of the fearfull danger of relapsing” – to a consideration of the associated spiritual lessons and experience that would help him approach the moment of reunion with the divine. Death was no stranger to Donne, who had lost a brother to the plague, saw six of his twelve children die, and lost his beloved wife as she gave birth to their last child, and even the superb love poetry he wrote in his youth is shot through with intimations of mortality. “Meditation XVII,” perhaps the best-known of all his works, starts from the experience of hearing church bells toll for others as he lies on his sickbed, and develops into a moving reflection on the way in which this teaches him that “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine. . . any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde.”
Why this is The BEST: I literally learned this at my mother’s knee, and was encouraged to ground my life on this principle of the mutual involvement and responsibility of all humans. It is no surprise to find that R. Jonathan Sacks returned to it on several occasions, among them in his The Dignity of Difference and The Home We Build Together, where he quotes it in a discussion of the covenantal foundation of a healthy society. Donne, whose tempestuous life could scarcely have been more different from that of R. Sacks, shares the same passion for a life of connection in the presence of God, the same recognition of the everyday groundedness of a true and lasting spirituality. “Meditation XVII” and the larger work from which it comes present a vision of sickness and death, not as enemies to be resisted, but as unique opportunities to make progress on the journey to God. Perhaps the other soaring metaphor that Donne applies here can be appropriately repurposed as an elegy for Rabbi Sacks, that great lover of books: “
All mankinde is of one Author, and is one volume; when one Man dies, one Chapter is not torne out of the booke, but translated into a better language; and every Chapter must be so translated; God emploies several translators; some peeces are translated by age, some by sicknesse, some by warre, some by justice; but Gods hand is in every translation; and his hand shall binde up all our scattered leaves againe, for that Librarie where every booke shall lie open to one another.
Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Jewish Studies of the University of Manchester, and at London School of Jewish Studies.
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