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.
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.