I’ve been working on a modern paraphrase of John Donne’s Devotions, which he wrote in 1623 during a bubonic plague outbreak. One-third of London’s residents would die, and in November Donne himself, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, fell ill. His journal of illness captures the melancholy mood of that time, not so different from what we experience in 2020. In this excerpt, the great poet and pastor searches for some shred of hope, some reason for gratitude.

Ah, now I hear a different ringing of the bell; not a funeral bell, but one announcing a grave sickness just before a person crosses the threshold of life’s end. Perhaps the poor soul is so sick as to not know for whom it tolls. Or—sudden thought—perhaps the attendants who see my decline have caused it to toll for me!

All humankind has the same author, and populates the same volume. When one person dies, a chapter is not torn out of the book, but rather translated into a better language. God employs various translators—age, sickness, war, justice—and God’s own hand guides every translation. That same hand will bind up all our scattered pages for an eternal library in which every book will lie open for inspection.

Therefore, as the bell that summons to a church service calls not just the preacher, but the entire congregation, so this passing bell calls us all. And especially me, brought so near the door by this sickness.

This bell that I hear signifies a passing of a piece of myself from this world. No one is an island, isolated and self-contained. If a chunk of earth be washed away by the sea, Europe is diminished—as much as if it were a promontory, or a friend’s manor, or my own. Anyone’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in all humanity.

Therefore, never ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for you, and for me.

It may seem as though I am absorbing misery from my neighbors with these morbid thoughts—as if I didn’t have misery enough on my own. But in fact affliction is a kind of treasure, for affliction can mature and ripen us, making us fit for God. If I carry my treasure as a lump of gold, not currency, it won’t help defray my expenses as I travel. Similarly, tribulation is a kind of treasure, not very useful until the time we get nearer and nearer our home in heaven.

A neighbor is lying sick unto death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels like gold in a mine, of no apparent use to him. But the very bell that informs me of his affliction digs out and applies that gold to me. By considering his plight, I contemplate my own, and thus secure myself, by turning for help to my God, who is our only security.

In this passing bell, I hear a legacy, a last testament, and now apply another’s condition to my own benefit. Most importantly, I hear a voice that makes all sound music and all music perfect: I hear your Son himself saying, Do not let your hearts be troubled, and I am going to prepare a place for you (John 14:1-2).

Permit me to ask one thing, though, my God: Since heaven promises glory and joy, why don’t we experience more glorious and joyful things to induce us to heaven? In the Old Testament, you guaranteed your people wine and oil, milk and honey, abundance and victory, peaceful hearts and cheerful countenances—all to prepare them for the joys and glories of heaven. Why have you changed your way, so as to lead us by discipline and mortification, by mourning and lamentation, by miserable ends and miserable anticipations of these miseries?

Do we need a foil of depression and disgrace to contrast with the perfection of heaven, a sourness of this life to give us a taste for something better? I know, my God, it is far, far otherwise. But why, then, won’t you let us have more joys and glories in this life?

Pardon, O God, my ungrateful rashness. Even as I ask the question, I find in my life reasons for gratitude. And if we do not find joys in our sorrows, and glory in our dejections in this world, we may risk missing both in the next.

Prayer

O eternal and most gracious God, I humbly attend to your voice in the sound of this sad passing bell.

First, I thank you that in this sound I can hear your instruction, that I should use another man’s condition to consider my own. Frankly, this bell that tolls for another’s approaching death may take me in too, even before it finishes ringing. As the wages of sin, death is due me; as the end of sickness, it belongs to me. Though in view of my disobedience I may fear death, in view of your mercy I need not be afraid. Therefore I surrender my soul to you, which I know you will accept, whether I live or die.

Having received your pardon for my soul, and asking no reprieve for my body, I boldly shift my prayers toward the one whose bell has inspired this devotion. Lay hold upon his soul, O God, and in however few minutes it remains in his body, let the power of your Spirit perfect his account before he passes away. Present his sins to him in such a way that he may not doubt your forgiveness but instead dwell upon your infinite mercy. Let him discern his faults, yes, but wrap himself up in the merits of your Son Christ Jesus. Breathe inward comforts to his heart, and afford him the strength to give an outward testimony, so that all about him may derive comfort from it, seeing that even though his body is going the way of all flesh, yet his soul is going the way of all saints.

When your Son cried out upon the cross, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? he spoke not only for himself but for the church and its afflicted members who in deep distress might fear your forsaking. This patient, O most blessed God, is one of them. On his behalf, and in his name, hear your Son crying to you, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? and don’t forsake him. With your left hand lay his body in the grave (if that be your will), and with your right hand receive his soul into your kingdom. And unite him and us in one communion of saints. Amen.

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34 responses to “A Melancholy Thanksgiving”

  1. Peter Olsson says:

    Death’s People

    We the tired seed
    of the great humbler pain,
    wear disheveled masks
    of who we used to be.

    Our greatest terror
    the malignant metamorphosis
    of respect turned to pity,
    of love lost in grief.

    All efforts of ego turned inward
    toward fighting loss of self.
    Demands of relationships too great,
    for a soul consumed by suffering.

    Infinite loneliness
    the awesome climate of birth,
    now descends in renewal,
    at death it’s inevitable counterpart.

    Farewell life and health,
    your wealth we now honor.
    Memories become actors now,
    on a Christian life’s final twilight.

  2. Calvin says:

    Beautiful as always. Thank you

  3. Kam Congleton says:

    Such timely words, Philip…. thank you!! Just this morning I was reflecting on I Peter 5:12…
    “My purpose in writing is to encourage you and assure you that what you are experiencing [affliction & persecution] is truly part of God’s grace for you. Stand firm in this grace.”
    “Sharing in Christ’s sufferings” (Rom.8:17) is the hardest part of the Christian life to grasp, as Western believers especially. But I think it is the door to intimacy with Jesus, learning along with Paul–“when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). The road of God’s grace is incomprehensibly deep and wide, but never easy. Yet if we choose to stay on it…joy inexpressible. ❤
    Blessings to you and prayers for your brother.

  4. Berwyn says:

    A beautiful, moving, and relevant paraphrase of Donne’s Devotions. His persona here is much more gentle, even tentative, than in the sonnets, perhaps because he can’t be sure “for whom the bell tolls,” possibly himself. And I love his asking why God doesn’t “let us have more glories and joys in this life.” But then, of course, comes the admonition: “we must find joys in our sorrows.”
    What a wonderful book project. Thank you.

  5. Bob says:

    John Dunn summed it up well from a human perspective:
    “Permit me to ask one thing, though, my God: Since heaven promises glory and joy, why don’t we experience more glorious and joyful things to induce us to heaven? In the Old Testament, you guaranteed your people wine and oil, milk and honey, abundance and victory, peaceful hearts and cheerful countenances—all to prepare them for the joys and glories of heaven.”
    Are we in such a state of spiritual ruin that we have lost the vision and energy of heavenly things to come?

  6. Troy Lilly says:

    Thank you, Philip. Hoping to get everybody over the virus so we can come to Evergreen for Christmas to see our kids.

    I look forward to the book.

  7. Avenel Grace says:

    I wonder , has anyone thought that God may be removing many of His loved ones before the great and terrible days to come? I know the rapture will see all who are covered by the blood of Jesus to go to be with Him, but many of the ones taken during this Covid illness are very elderly and the weak in body. The older you get, the more attractive the idea of dying becomes. One breath away from eternity …Praise God.

  8. Darin Holmes says:

    This was wonderful to read; thank you for sharing this. What a strong, honest faith John Donne had, with great humility as well.

  9. Mark Harris says:

    Thank you for the insight into mans journey of faith and search for a greater knowledge of God, made so much more real in such times as these.

    God bless you

  10. Richard Rose says:

    Philip.
    As ever, you make me see God from a fresh viewpoint. Thank you.

  11. Mike Mullin says:

    Bless you for these words. I live in memory care with my wife, being the de facto chaplain to several who have gone and those of us who survived the onslaught. These words ring true, relevant, immediate. Myself included.

  12. Aida says:

    Thank you very much!
    In times like these, we are prompted to pray and get closer to God.

  13. Gordon Kensington says:

    One death is one too many, 1.6m world wide is incomprehensible! And they are only the ones that have been able to be counted so far. Every one is one loved of God who blesses mankind with skills and intelligence to forestall outcomes on a level with previous pandemics. Thank God for Philip who catches the moment and adds a perspective I would have missed.

  14. Vicki Newby says:

    Very impactful! Thank you!

  15. Patricia Adams says:

    I can hardly keep up with the abundant thoughts teeming through my mind after reading these beautiful words. I will ‘feast” on them with much gratitude on this Thanksgiving Day. Thank you!

  16. Thanks Philip and Happy Thanksgiving. Melancholy is always in season! Donne reminds me of Hauerwas’s book “Suffering Presence”. The bell always tolls for us all as we are present to one another. Glad you are publishing this.

  17. Ron & Karen Cook says:

    Thanks, Philip, for sharing deeply with your fellow pilgrims. We have so much to be thankful for even in the midst of sorrow and loss. My eldest brother passed in March as ‘the plague’ advanced, then so quickly on Nov. 6 his dear wife of almost 70 yrs. left the company of the living. Covid has taken friends near & far, a former pastor at 96 taken, another at 97 recovered! Our 13 mo. old grandson, diagnosed Monday, is recovering as is his grandmother & step grandfather on the other side, his uncle (our other son) & aunt.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      And my stroke-afflicted brother got diagnosed 2 days ago, and is spending Thanksgiving isolated in a hospital. The pandemic takes on a different face when it strikes close, doesn’t it?

  18. Thank you for bringing these profound words into the light once again.

  19. Jill Schreiber says:

    I love the prayer for the sick neighbor, especially regarding the events of the last minutes of his life. This gives me help and hope in praying for the lost.

  20. Don Follis says:

    Very lovely, Philip. Poignant and yet hopeful. Well done!

  21. Excellent message…………thank you….

  22. Donna Younglove says:

    Food for the soul on this Thanksgiving Day – thank you.

  23. Wayne Hoag says:

    Thank you Philip for sharing this today. It brings a fresh perspective to the time in which we are living, especially in light of my battle with Covid19 this summer. I look forward to the book.

  24. peter reece says:

    Very applicable and perhaps a little scary. Especially for us “oldies” !

  25. Ralph says:

    Donne is one of those literary names whose faith is easily overlooked by many, because he is associated more with his writing style and influence. I don’t think it takes perfect diction and prose to make heartfelt prayers, but his is indeed a prayer from the heart. This Thanksgiving/Christmas will lay bare a wound for my family and especially my sister and brother-in-law, being without their daughter, my niece. I’m just thankful for what I have (and WHOM) even as this year of terrible twists and turns is nearing and end. I just cry out to the giver of all good things that hopes can be fulfilled in the coming year. God’s blessings on you this thanksgiving, Phil.

  26. Deborah says:

    This brought me to tears, and I immediately found myself praying for all Covid-19 victims, dying at this moment everywhere, the prayer at the end of your writing for them. Thank you for reminding us that sorrow, grief, pain, sickness, and dying are not new, but felt in every generation—even frightening, terrible pandemics are not new. Or questioning God. But to whom shall we go? God/Jesus has the words of eternal life. John Donne says it so eloquently that death of any and all diminishes me….I feel the pain of it even when I see any creature stilled by death, or any part of God’s beautiful, wondrous world.

  27. Ian Watkins says:

    Wow! Just wow!

  28. Beverly Milford says:

    A beautiful prayer for end of life for all people.

  29. Peyton Jones says:

    Thank you so much for working on this. I’m more excited about this book than any that I’ve heard of for a long time. Appreciate you Philip and your unique voice. You inspired me to write, and I am so grateful every time you put pen to paper.

  30. Murray Thompson says:

    “Present his sins to him in such a way that he may not doubt your forgiveness but instead dwell upon your infinite mercy. ”
    Such a message of correction with forgiveness, well beyond simple forbearance. Makes me reflect on being a parent, and being a Christian friend….and how many times I ought to have done far, far better!

  31. Rose Holmes says:

    Just loved it. Thankyou!

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