The Good Doctor Donne

Beethoven, Shakespeare, and the rest — how we extol them. “Oh, I do love his 7th Symphony so much!” Or, “Oh yes — ‘To be or not to be. . .’ — so powerful. So immeasurably profound.”

The thing about all of this, of course, is that once one has graduated from school, the chances of one’s returning to the works of these gentlemen are sparse. When was the last time (even you music lovers who pride yourselves on having got beyond the golden oldies) that you listened — really listened –to Beethoven’s Fifth?

In any event, among such works we would certainly find John Donne’s sonnet, “Batter my heart, three-personed God.” When was the last time you mulled that one over? It offers the occasion for some salutary and brisk self-examination — an exercise that ought to be on the (daily?) agenda of any good Catholic.

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Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

What’s this? Ah: I am so besotted and slatternly that Your efforts to flag me down are far too gentle. You merely knock at my door, or breathe on me like a wooer, or illumine me with comfortable words from Scripture, or try to patch things up here and there. You are going to have to hammer on me if I am ever to start from my habitual torpor. (It’s worth noting here that a very sharp awareness of one’s own sluggishness is at work in these sentiments. Donne, not being modern, thinks of his condition as sinful unless grace intervenes. He is not merely “broken”: he’s guilty of the sin of Sloth — one of the Seven Deadly ones, remember.)

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

The penitent warms to his task here. Dear Lord, don’t merely knock: You are going to have to break down the door and throw me down (very brisk stuff here). Don’t just breathe: blow. And as for shining — it will take the fire of Your Love to rouse me. As a matter of fact, my condition is so pitiful that You are going to have to make me new. Tinkering won’t quite do the trick.

If one is at this point inclined to palliate things by remarking that, well, of course Donne was a Puritan — he wasn’t. He was a very Catholic-minded Anglican. The Puritans hadn’t tipped their hand yet.

I, like a usurped town to another due,
Labor to admit You, but oh! to no end;

I am like a town that owes fealty to God but that has been conquered by a usurper and owes its taxes to the wrong lord now. In other words, without Your grace, Sin has me in thrall. I make attempts to let You in, but it’s useless. I’m too feeble. Has any one of us ever found it a bit wearying even to pray? Or to keep our minds focused at Mass? There’s so much else beside the Lord that crowds our thoughts . . . .

Reason, Your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived and proves weak or untrue.

Sheer Reason, Your good gift, which should be ruling my thoughts and behavior in Your name, turns out itself to be in chains and unable to save the situation. It can even deceive me. It looks as though Grace is called for.

Yet dearly I love You, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto Your enemy.
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,

The sad thing is that, in spite of all, I do love You, and want very much to be loved by You, but I seem to have betrothed myself to Satan. Again — violent sentiments these; but Donne was speaking from a mind saturated with Scripture, the Fathers, and the saints. Surely it’s not quite that bad? But we need to consult sources more ancient than modern counseling if we are ever to make it to the dread precincts of holiness. Well then, grant me a divorce from this false spouse; undo my shackles; break the knot with which I have fastened myself to the enemy.

Take me to You, imprison me, for I,
Except You enthrall me, never shall be free;
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.

Heigh-ho. Prison again? Yes. It’s the ancient and rich notion that bondage to God is the very, and only, state of true freedom. All else is illusion, like an ignis fatuus luring us mortals eventually into the dungeons of hell.

But what’s this about chastity? Well, sin has fouled me. I have lost my virginity a thousand times over — not only in Eden, but by choices without number that I myself have made. And unless You, Lord, purify and ravish me with the fire of your Love (remember Bernini’s sculpture of St. Teresa?), I will never be pure enough to enter with Holy Church into the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

A memorable sonnet, to be sure. But also, perhaps, a jolting reminder of the ancient and never-outdated exercise of fierce self-examination.


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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