On Essays and Letters

In the Spring of 1618, John Donne, of “no man is an island” fame, preached a sermon at Lincoln’s Inn, the seat of the legal profession in London. Some years earlier he had matriculated there and now was returning as a chaplain. His earlier life, evidently, had not always been edifying. This sermon was based on a sentence from Psalm 38.2, which read “For Thine Arrowes Stick Fast in Me, and Thy Hand Presseth Me Sore.” Needless to say, few sermons since Donne’s time have been preached on this particular passage! Donne, who in his youth was known as something of a rake, wants to impress on the lawyers and judges that he knows of God’s judgment and man’s need of repentance.

Donne tells us that just as we have preference in our diet for certain kinds of food, so in our spiritual life we select certain kinds of favored nourishment. Donne is particularly fond of the Psalms of David and the Epistles of St. Paul. Just to prove that his choice of spiritual diet is not eccentric, Donne tells us that St. Augustine loved the Book of Psalms and Saint (John) Chrysostom loved Saint Paul’s Epistles. In other words, he is in good company.

Yet Donne tells the congregation that he also has his own “particular” reason for liking the Psalms and Paul. The first reason is that “they are Scriptures written in such forms, as I have been most accustomed to.” They are familiar to him. St. Paul writes “letters,” while David writes “poems.” “Why,” Donne asks himself, “does he especially like these forms?” It is because God does not give us what is “meerely necessary, but that which is convenient too.” We sometimesthink that life would be best if we only had to deal with what is “necessary,” a sort of universal Occam’s razor. Nothing should be multiplied except by necessity.

Yet the world is not stingy. Something is wrong with us if we miss seeing its abundance. “He (God) does not only feed us, but feed us with marrow, and with fatnesse; he gives us our instruction in cheerfull forms, not in a sowre, and sullen, and angry, and unacceptable way, but cheerfully in Psalms, which is also a limited and restrained form; Not in an Oration, not in Prose, but in Psalms. . . .” We are taught best in “cheerfull” forms. We are fed not just with food, but rich foods, both of body and soul.

Donne understands our nature. “This is a natural temptation, which the strongest men, being but men, cannot devest.” What is this temptation? “If their purposes prosper not, they are weary of their industry, weary of life.” This weariness means that they trust themselves first, not God. Such an attitude, Donne tells us, is the “Summa ingratitudo in Deum, malle non esse, quam miserum esse.” (The highest ingratitude to God, to prefer not to be, than to be miserable.)

Why would this preference not to be rather than to be and be miserable be put forth as the very “highest” ingratitude? We notice that the word is ingratitude, not injustice. Donne tells us that “There cannot be a greater unthankfulnesse to God then to desire to be Nothing at all, rather then tobe that, that God would have thee to be; To desire to be out of the world, rather then to glorifie him, by thy patience in it.” The desire to be “nothing,” Chesterton said somewhere, is the ultimate rejection of being, of existence, of what is. It is the real temptation of the suicide.

Donne tells us, in words that recall St. Paul, much in his summary of why we should learn to be patient. We should learn it “not from the stupidity of Philosophers, who are but their own statues, men of stone, without sense, without affections, and who placed all their glory in a Non facies ut te dicam malum (Let it not be said that I call you evil), that no pain should make them say they were in pain. . . .”

Here Donne objects to the whole Stoic tradition that showed its superiority over reality by refusing to acknowledging that any pain could or should touch its will. This was really a classic form of pride. Those who prefer nothing and those who are not affected by reality suffer from the same disorder of soul. Without being flippant, they could be said to lack “cheerfullness”; they think everything depends on themselves.

I calculate that it probably would have taken Donne about forty-five minutes to deliver this sermon to the lawyers. He evidently had something to say; the congregation had something significant to hear.

Donne ends his sermon by recalling the passage from Psalm 38: “Thine arrows were followed and pressed with the hand of God; The hand of God pressed upon them in that eternall decree, in that irrevocable contract, between thy Father and thee, in that Oportuit pati, That all that thou must suffer, and so enter into thy glory.” This is the alternative Donne sees to the “nothingness” or to a stoic pride that shows its sober superiority even to God by refusing to acknowledge even suffering.

In a passage worthy of Handel’s music to accompany it, and indeed from the same source in the Book of Revelation, Donne assures us of a “confidence” in God’s “decree.” We can rely on those already “in heaven.” We can “joyn” them “with that Quire in that service, in that Anthem, Blessing, and glory, and Wisdome, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever, and ever, Amen.”

Lawyers probably do nothear these things much anymore even at Lincoln’s Inn, let alone law schools. Indeed, much modern preaching is mainly about improving this world with little attention to the direction of Donne’s sermon. We think that we can and should bypass all suffering as if it were a proof, not of the importance of our lives, but of their uselessness and but occasion for our defiance of reality.

In the end, we must confess a certain envy of those who “joyn” that “Quire” as it sings the great refrain—“glory, and Wisdome, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever, and ever.” What strikes us, looking at such exalted words, is that they are not directed to ourselves, but, freely, yes, cheerfully, to what is not ourselves. Such striking words were spoken at Lincoln’s Inn, London, in the spring of 1618, by a man who loved letters and psalms. No reason can be found why his words do nor remain with us in our time or in any time. None of us, to recall his heritage, is an island, sufficient to himself. That fact alone is a sufficient basis for our cheerfulness.  

The sermon is found in The Sermons of John Donne, selected and introduced by Theodore Gill (New York: Living Age Books/Meridian, 1958), 35–62 [also here]. I have left the older spellings in the text.

James V. Schall, S.J. is professor of government at Georgetown University.

In this column, Father Schall reflects on a sermon that John Donne preached to London’s lawyers on a proper understanding of gratitude and suffering.