anglican university chaplain dreaming, hoping, praying
Monday, August 18, 2008
Summer Poets - John Donne
CS lewis once referred to his conversion as 'reluctant', and many other Christians too have worried that their acceptance of faith might in some way rob them of their freedom. Critics of faith sometimes refer to conversion as 'intellectual suicide' or 'brain-washing'.
John Donne (1772-1631, a late convert from Roman Catholicism and ultimately Dean of St Paul's Cathedral) was a famous versifier of sex, death and religion. Perhaps reflecting his own complex experiences, his sonnet here picks up St Paul's strange imagery about being at war with oneself and seeking freedom.
Contrary to today's popular notion, Donne echoes St Paul's paradoxical conclusion that 'perfect freedom' for the Christian is in fact not autonomy, but service of God. Embracing faith can sometimes - for some - involve 'intellectual suicide', but others find that a strange freedom in being 'possessed by God'.
Batter my heart, three-person'd God
Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me and bend Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new. I, like an usurpt town, to another due, Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end, Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend, But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue. Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain, But am betroth'd unto your enemy: Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again, Take me to you, imprison me, for I Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Adam Lay I-Bounded is a pretty simple Christmas carol. But it has a strange twist – it gives thanks for Adam’s sin:
Adam lay I-bounden, bounden in a bond; Four thousand winter thought he not too long. And all was for an apple, an apple that he took, As clerks finden written in their book.
Ne had the apple taken been, the apple taken been, Ne had never our Lady aye been Heaven’s queen. Blessed be the time that apple taken was, Therefore may we singen, “Deo Gracias!”
No, not a bizarre Satanic perversion. Instead it has its roots in the concept of the ‘happy fall’ (felix culpa). As Thomas Aquinas put it ‘the Incarnation wouldn’t have happened if sin hadn’t first existed’ (although he quickly adds ‘even if sin hadn’t existed, God could still have become incarnate if God wished.’).
On a day to day level, in our experience of sinfulness the truth is that after a while, any early glamour wears off. Sin becomes rather tiring and ultimately life-denying.
For example, nursing a grudge against someone begins to hurt me more than the person against whom I’m holding the grudge. And the same is true of other sins: just think of over-consumption and the effect that is having on our bodies and our environment. All sins ultimately back-fire and cause us more harm than the ‘good’ they initially seemed to promise.
Then there may come the moment - a tipping point – when we say, actually I’d be far better off just admitting I’m in the wrong. And with that an enormous liberation can come. What a relief! And so a new life starts, freed of the earlier boundaries, deeper and more aware of the forgiveness of God, more conscious of the Grace that brought us through.
And yet, true to say, had we not been limited by that prior sinfulness, we might never have appreciated quite the extent of God’s grace and what a life set free could be like. St Paul was aware of this paradox (and he was very careful *not* to say ‘let sin lots so that we can be forgiven more!’).
But still we may say, after we’ve admitted some self-deception, some sin, and been delivered from its grip: ‘I hope I never have to go through that again – but I’m glad I’ve been through it now, because it’s brought me closer to God’.