IN LATE WINTER DURING THE FIFTY-NINTH YEAR of his life, John Donne braved the weather and rough roads of the English countryside to keep his final preaching engagement before the king in London. He had spent most of that winter, what would be his last, battling “consumption,” and on several occasions he nearly died. But he was eager to simply preach again. Donne had grown to love his midlife calling as a preacher. Better known today and early in his own life as a poet of love, Donne was also an exquisite expositor.
Throughout his life, Donne was a very public figure in London. His poetry circulated widely, passed and copied from hand to hand. As a young man, his earliest verses spoke of a wild decadence—trysts with women and overseas adventures. But public scorn of his elopement followed by years without steady work sobered his spirit. Years later, when the king offered him a position as a priest in the Church of England, Donne accepted. He was wildly successful in his new career and became even more prominent in London society. So, when Donne performed his death, he performed it as he had lived—as though on a stage or written into a poem.
An often sickly man, it is no surprise that much of Donne’s writing dealt with death. Meditating on death was nothing new to Donne. His famous Elegies poetically address death and dying. And his popular Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions are his reflections after nearly dying from plague as it raged through London. Yet Donne never wanted to publish his poetry, for which he is better known. During his final illness, Donne compiled and edited his sermons for publication. As if he were arranging them for posterity to be sure the world knew how he valued his preaching, Donne devoted his healthy hours to this final task.
As he lay ill, preparing his sermons (some of which would have lasted four hours if delivered aloud), Donne also made out his will. Before divvying up his possessions, Donne began his will with a statement of his faith, saying that he remained assured through the Holy Spirit “of the Salvation of [his soul], and the Resurrection of [his body].” Finally, having tied up his earthly affairs and prepared what he hoped would be his legacy, his sermons, Donne was ready to travel to preach to England’s elite.
After months of illness and more than half a year spent away from London, Donne’s friends were shocked by his appearance upon his return. They were astonished, as his biographer described, that Donne’s illness left him just “so much flesh as did only cover his bones.” They doubted whether he would be able to perform the upcoming service and did their best to persuade him not to attempt it as it was likely to quicken his death. They proved correct, but Donne would not listen.
Donne rose before his audience at the king’s court, believing that God, having kept him alive so long, would not yet withdraw his strength. The crowd, amazed simply at his presence, according to his biographer, thought Donne had traveled to London not to “preach mortification by a living voice, but mortality by a decayed body, and a dying face.”
Though Donne paused on occasion, weak from his effort, he determined to deliver the sermon he had worked so hard—in mind and body—to prepare. To many in the congregation, it seemed Donne was preaching for his own benefit as much as theirs.
The sermon was a sensation. It was quickly printed under the title “Death’s Duel.” In it, Donne seems to be readying himself for his imminent departure from this life, and he instructs his listeners to do the same.
“Our birth dies in infancy, and our infancy dies in youth, and youth and the rest die in age,” Donne told the court. Physical death, he argues, may even be welcomed, for it is easier than life. “So many deadly calamities accompany every condition and every period of this life, as that death itself would be an ease to them that suffer them.”
We need not worry too much about the painful affects of disease that dying unleashes. After all, God himself is in control of our leaving this world, Donne said, and it is his concern how we leave. So we may trust in him. “Though . . . we pass from death to death, yet, as Daniel speaks, the Lord our God is able to deliver us, and he will deliver us.”
Moll, R., & Winner, L. (2013). The art of dying: living fully into the life to come. Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press.
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