Another Perspective

Been There, Donne That

Meditating on John Donne's Holy Sonnets this Lent.

By 2.22.07

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This week marks the beginning of Lent. At churches this time of year, reading lists are suggested, prayer and fasting regimens outlined, almsgiving opportunities provided -- all potentially fruitful and beneficial for believers. I must stress I speak as one who should, may well try, but probably won't make much headway with any of these.

And I stress potentially fruitful and beneficial, for if these disciplines are not carried out with the full recognition that we cannot in any way justify ourselves in the eyes of God, if they are not conducted in the full light of the Cross, we will be only fooling ourselves.

These disciplines cannot save us. They can help us grow closer to God. But they can in no way bridge the chasm between immortal God and sinful man. Only the Cross and the Resurrection provide the bridge; and he who died and rose again bought our crossing with a price. "For there is no distinction," St. Paul says, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith."

If I were asked to suggest Lenten readings from outside of Scripture itself, and particularly ones that remind us that human effort, no matter how Herculean, will never enable us to scale Heaven's walls, I'd point to the Holy Sonnets, a series of poems where the 17th century poet and clergyman John Donne acknowledges his deep need for God if sin is going to be put away. Here is the fifth in the 19-sonnet sequence (you can find all of them here):

I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic sprite,
But black sin hath betrayed to endless night
My world's both parts, and, oh, both parts must die.

We are little worlds made of body and soul, expertly made, but sin has betrayed these worlds to "endless night," to the grave and everlasting damnation. The Scriptures are clear what the wages of sin entail: death. Donne then calls upon God.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres, and of new lands can write,
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must not be drowned no more;

He desires to lament his sins, but even for this he calls upon God to "pour new seas in mine eyes ..." If this sinful world -- that is, Donne himself -- cannot be drowned because God said he would never again drown the world, he asks to be washed by these plentiful tears.
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and envy have burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler; let their flames retire,
And burn me O Lord, with a fiery zeal
Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heal.

Again, it is not Donne who has the strength. It is God who must burn him "with a fiery zeal ... for which doth in eating heal." It is God alone who saves us.

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About the Author

R. Andrew Newman is a freelance journalist in western Nebraska.