I have an ancient poet to thank for my first book. During my mid-twenties, while serving as the editor of Campus Life magazine, I came across John Donne’s book Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. I knew of Donne from fragments taught in high school—“No man is an island…”; “for whom the bell tolls…”—but I almost avoided opening the book, which could compete for a dullest-book-title award. I’m glad I persevered.
Along with most people, I had often puzzled over the problem of pain. Why would a loving, powerful God tolerate such suffering in the world? I had read a number of books on the subject, but Donne’s words, something like a cross between the Book of Job and C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, leaped out at me.
John Donne had a right to question God. As Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1623, he held one of the most eminent religious positions of the time. In the midst of a terrible pandemic, he had buried many of his parishioners. A third of London had died, and another third had fled to the countryside. The great city was a virtual ghost town. Even so, each week the survivors packed St. Paul’s, seeking words of comfort from one of Britain’s finest orators.
Suddenly, symptoms of illness appeared on Dean Donne’s own body. To his doctors it seemed a clear case of the bubonic plague. For a month he lay sick, hearing the church bell toll for others and wondering if his death would be the next announced. Febrile, unable to consult his library, he managed to compose a series of meditations that described each stage of his illness.
Despite his weakened state, Donne’s writer’s instinct took over and he began a wrestling match with God. How could you strike me down, God, when my flock needs me so desperately? In my youth I was a sexual profligate—is this your way of cruelly nailing me to my bed? Do you still heal people? Or, do you enjoy watching us humans writhe in pain? What message are you trying to get across to the world? He agonized over questions like these, and scoured his memory of the Bible for answers.
As he wrote, Donne’s spiritual outlook wavered between sublime trust and paranoia. In today’s term, he used a passive-aggressive approach with God, now demanding, now shyly retreating. Sometimes he used the journal as a form of cognitive therapy, talking himself into faith when he had none, and into hope when he felt only despair.
Captivated by his insights, in my youthful enthusiasm I bought copies of his Devotions and gave them to my friends. “Did you read it?” I asked time and again, only to get the sheepish reply, “I tried, really, but just couldn’t get past the language and old-fashioned syntax.” Some of Donne’s sentences, after all, ran more than 200 words.
Aha, I thought, John Donne’s Devotions needs a new rendering. He published his book a mere decade after the King James Bible, which now has scores of translations and paraphrases to aid the modern reader. So I modernized six of Donne’s meditations and sent my very first book proposal to the Religion Editor at Harper & Row Publishing. I knew I would get his attention if I wrote on Campus Life stationery, because Harper was a major advertiser.
A few weeks later I received a rejection letter. When I recovered from disappointment, I had a discussion with my boss at the time, Harold Myra. He said, “Philip, rather than re-writing someone else’s, why don’t you write your own book on pain and suffering.” So I did, and that is the origin of Where Is God When It Hurts.
Flash forward almost fifty years. By now I’ve written two dozen books, with some of them circling around the topic of pain and suffering. Suddenly, a mysterious virus shows up that within a few months will affect nearly everyone on the planet. Hospital corridors fill with patients; morgues overflow; stock markets tumble; conspiracy theories spread about vaccines and masks; one by one, countries go under lockdown. A few instant-books appear with titles like God and COVID-19. The world is desperately seeking answers to existential questions. But can content cranked out in a few weeks really contribute the insight we need at such a critical time?
Again I pick up John Donne’s book, and again I am struck by its pertinence. In four centuries, medical science has changed so much as to be unrecognizable. Donne was treated with bloodlettings and pigeons applied to his head and feet to draw away the vapors and humors. The germ theory of disease had not been discovered. Yet Donne’s remonstrations with God could have been written yesterday. Published 400 years ago, his Devotions has never gone out of print. The book is so timeless that when the British newspaper The Guardian selected the 100 best nonfiction books of all time, Donne’s book ranked high on the list.
And so, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages, I decide to use the extra time provided by the shutdown to finish the project that I set aside long ago. I want to make this classic work more accessible in a new era.
I am brutally selective as I work, slashing anything that requires detailed explanations of old science or Greek mythology. I choose only parts that seem to have an immediate relevance. And, wincing all the way, I do my best to tame Donne’s wild, witty, complicated writing style into something that modern readers can absorb. The academics may howl in protest. But there’s a chance that many readers may find comfort from the results of such a project.
After I complete the editorial work, in an effort to speed up the snail-like process of publishing, my assistant Joannie Barth scrambles to self-publish an edition titled A Companion in Crisis. Soon, however, the crisis of COVID-19 is overtaken by other crises, some human-caused (wars, climate change) and some “natural” (hurricanes, diseases).
And now, just this month, our friends at Rabbit Room Press have brought out a beautiful new edition, titled Undone, that we hope will introduce many readers to the remarkable life and work of John Donne. Click here if you’d like more information about the new release.
Happy 400th anniversary, Dean Donne.
Oh, yes, there’s one humorous postscript to my first attempt at a book, five decades ago, when I submitted a few samples of John Donne redone. The rejection letter from Harper & Row consisted of three short paragraphs. The first reported that editors had carefully considered my proposal. The third invited me to send along any other book ideas I might have. The middle paragraph said, “This is an important magazine source, so try to make it sound anguished and personal.”
I re-read that sentence several times, unsure of its meaning. Doesn’t any rejection sound anguished and personal? Then I realized what had happened: in the days of dictation, the editor’s secretary had typed his verbal aside to her in the body of the letter! The sentence was meant for the secretary, not for me.
I waited ten years before showing that editor his rejection letter. I’m sure he tossed in bed many nights wondering what else he had dictated that inadvertently made its way into letters—perhaps instructions like “Tell that jerk to quit pestering me, but try to make it sound nice…”
Subscribe to Philip Yancey’s blog: