Monday, December 12, 2011

"To desire to be out of the world"

.... Donne tells us that “There cannot be a greater unthankfulnesse to God then to desire to be Nothing at all, rather then to be 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. ....

Here Donne objects to the whole Stoic tradition that showed its superiority over reality by refusing to acknowledge 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. ....

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.”

...[M]uch 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 not 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. .... [more]
The sermon: John Donne - For Thine Arrowes Stick Fast in Me

The University Bookman: On Instruction in Cheerful Forms