Nailed to a Bed of Pain

 

Following the British defeat of the Spanish Armada, English warships retaliated in 1596 by raiding the Spanish port of Cadiz. Fifty-three merchant vessels and warships were destroyed at port, and the town demolished. Amidst the booming cannon, the rancid smoke-filled air, and the cries of dying men, the peel of the church bells rang out the alarm by day and the death knell of those who perished by night.

Witnessing the carnage was a twenty-four year old British sailor—John Donne. Donne’s life was pockmarked with pain. At four years old, his father suddenly died. After being arrested for giving sanctuary to a Catholic priest, his younger brother Henry died of a fever in prison. Donne secretly married Anne More, a decision that cost him his job and landed him briefly in jail by his father-in-law who did not approve of the marriage. He and his wife lived in poverty in a small house which he referred to as a “hospital” and a “prison.” They had twelve children, five of whom died before maturity. After sixteen years of marriage, Anne died in childbirth, leaving Donne to raise a large family on meager funds.

At the age of 11, Donne began three years of study at Oxford, followed by three years at Cambridge. He formally graduated from neither as he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy requiring any person taking public or church office to swear allegiance to the monarch as supreme head of the Anglican Church. Yet later Donne became Royal Chaplain and frequently preached in the King’s court. He was a favorite of King James I and Charles I. His sermonic style was witty, dramatic, and elaborately metaphorical. His fame as one of the greatest preachers of his time spread throughout England and he was appointed Dean of St. Paul’s Church in London from 1621 until his death in 1631.

In 1624, John Donne lay in bed, his body racked with pain from what may have been malarial fever brought back from his exploits in Spain twenty-eight years earlier. Confined to his bed of pain for weeks on end, Donne wrote the little book Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. Periodically Donne’s pen would halt as he listened to the customary ringing of the church bells chiming the sad news that another soul had passed from this life to the next. Then the poet’s pen moved again, gifting us all with this pearl of prose:

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.

. . .

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

No, it was not the brilliant mind of Earnest Hemingway that originally conjured the title of his famous book For Whom the Bell Tolls. It was an Anglican preacher nailed to his bed of pain and suffering.

John Donne lay in obscurity until early in the 20th century. T. S. Eliot recommended Donne be published anew, catapulting Donne into the status of a major English poet. Today Donne is more known for his poetry than his preaching, though a master of both.

During the last few weeks of his life, Donne lay on his bed in pain as his life ebbed away. The people of St. Paul’s employed a carver to design a monument for their Dean. Donne posed in the posture of death as a living cadaver, hands folded, eyes closed, and a winding sheet wrapped around him. After his death, the white marble monument of John Donne was mounted over his funeral urn in St. Paul’s Cathedral. His face wears a serene expression ironically contrasting with the suffering he endured in life.

Donne wrote and preached as much or more about pain and death than any of his contemporaries. Well acquainted with suffering, he was also well acquainted with 1 John 3:1–2, evidenced by one of his later sermons:

 

Our last day is our first day; our Saturday is our Sunday; our eve is

our holy day; our sunsetting is our morning; the day of our death is the first

day of our eternal life. The next day after that . . . comes that day that shall

show me to myself. Here I never saw God too. . . . Here I have one faculty

enlightened, and another left in darkness; mine understanding sometimes

cleared, my will at the same time perverted. There I shall be all light, no

shadow upon me; my soul invested in the light of joy, and my body in the

light of glory.[1]

[1] Material gleaned from Philip Yancey, “John Donne: As He Lay Dying,” Reality and the Vision, ed. Philip Yancey (Dallas: Word, 1990), 185-86, and John Stubbs, John Donne: The Reformed Soul (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006), 445-74.

 

Tags: , ,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *