Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, by John Donne

X. Lente et serpenti satagunt occurrere morbo.

They find the disease to steal on insensibly, and endeavour to meet with it so.

X. Meditation.

This is nature’s nest of boxes: the heavens contain the earth; the earth, cities; cities, men. And all these are concentric; the common centre to them all is decay, ruin; only that is eccentric which was never made; only that place, or garment rather, which we can imagine but not demonstrate. That light, which is the very emanation of the light of God, in which the saints shall dwell, with which the saints shall be apparelled, only that bends not to this centre, to ruin; that which was not made of nothing is not threatened with this annihilation. All other things are; even angels, even our souls; they move upon the same poles, they bend to the same centre; and if they were not made immortal by preservation, their nature could not keep them from sinking to this centre, annihilation. In all these (the frame of the heavens, the states upon earth, and men in them, comprehend all), those are the greatest mischiefs which are least discerned; the most insensible in their ways come to be the most sensible in their ends. The heavens have had their dropsy, they drowned the world; and they shall have their fever, and burn the world. Of the dropsy, the flood, the world had a foreknowledge one hundred and twenty years before it came; and so some made provision against it, and were saved; the fever shall break out in an instant and consume all; the dropsy did no harm to the heavens from whence it fell, it did not put out those lights, it did not quench those heats; but the fever, the fire, shall burn the furnace itself, annihilate those heavens that breathe it out. Though the dogstar have a pestilent breath, an infectious exhalation, yet, because we know when it will rise, we clothe ourselves, and we diet ourselves, and we shadow ourselves to a sufficient prevention; but comets and blazing stars, whose effects or significations no man can interrupt or frustrate, no man foresaw: no almanack tells us when a blazing star will break out, the matter is carried up in secret; no astrologer tells us when the effects will be accomplished, for that is a secret of a higher sphere than the other; and that which is most secret is most dangerous. It is so also here in the societies of men, in states and commonwealths. Twenty rebellious drums make not so dangerous a noise as a few whisperers and secret plotters in corners. The cannon doth not so much hurt against a wall, as a mine under the wall; nor a thousand enemies that threaten, so much as a few that take an oath to say nothing. God knew many heavy sins of the people, in the wilderness and after, but still he charges them with that one, with murmuring, murmuring in their hearts, secret disobediences, secret repugnances against his declared will; and these are the most deadly, the most pernicious. And it is so too with the diseases of the body; and that is my case. The pulse, the urine, the sweat, all have sworn to say nothing, to give no indication of any dangerous sickness. My forces are not enfeebled, I find no decay in my strength; my provisions are not cut off, I find no abhorring in mine appetite; my counsels are not corrupted nor infatuated, I find no false apprehensions to work upon mine understanding; and yet they see that invisibly, and I feel that insensibly, the disease prevails. The disease hath established a kingdom, an empire in me, and will have certain arcana imperii, secrets of state, by which it will proceed and not be bound to declare them. But yet against those secret conspiracies in the state, the magistrate hath the rack; and against these insensible diseases physicians have their examiners; and those these employ now.

X. Expostulation.

My God, my God, I have been told, and told by relation, by her own brother that did it, by thy servant Nazianzen, that his sister in the vehemency of her prayer, did use to threaten thee with a holy importunity, with a pious impudency. I dare not do so, O God; but as thy servant Augustine wished that Adam had not sinned, therefore that Christ might not have died, may I not to this one purpose wish that if the serpent, before the temptation of Eve, did go upright and speak,135 that he did so still, because I should the sooner hear him if he spoke, the sooner see him if he went upright? In his curse I am cursed too; his creeping undoes me; for howsoever he begin at the heel, and do but bruise that, yet he, and death in him, is come into our windows;136 into our eyes and ears, the entrances and inlets of our soul. He works upon us in secret and we do not discern him; and one great work of his upon us is to make us so like himself as to sin in secret, that others may not see us; but his masterpiece is to make us sin in secret, so as that we may not see ourselves sin. For the first, the hiding of our sins from other men, he hath induced that which was his offspring from the beginning, a lie;137 for man is, in nature, yet in possession of some such sparks of ingenuity and nobleness, as that, but to disguise evil, he would not lie. The body, the sin, is the serpent’s; and the garment that covers it, the lie, is his too. These are his, but the hiding of sin from ourselves is he himself: when we have the sting of the serpent in us, and do not sting ourselves, the venom of sin, and no remorse for sin, then, as thy blessed Son said of Judas, He is a devil;138 not that he had one, but was one; so we are become devils to ourselves, and we have not only a serpent in our bosom, but we ourselves are to ourselves that serpent. How far did thy servant David press upon thy pardon in that petition, Cleanse thou me from secret sins?139 Can any sin be secret? for a great part of our sins, though, says thy prophet, we conceive them in the dark, upon our bed, yet, says he, we do them in the light; there are many sins which we glory in doing, and would not do if nobody should know them. Thy blessed servant Augustine confesses that he was ashamed of his shamefacedness and tenderness of conscience, and that he often belied himself with sins which he never did, lest he should be unacceptable to his sinful companions. But if we would conceal them (thy prophet found such a desire, and such a practice in some, when he said, Thou hast trusted in thy wickedness, and thou hast said, None shall see me140), yet can we conceal them? Thou, O God, canst hear of them by others: the voice of Abel’s blood will tell thee of Cain’s murder;141 the heavens themselves will tell thee. Heaven shall reveal his iniquity; a small creature alone shall do it, A bird of the air shall carry the voice, and tell the matter;142 thou wilt trouble no informer, thou thyself revealedst Adam’s sin to thyself;143 and the manifestation of sin is so full to thee, as that thou shalt reveal all to all; Thou shalt bring every work to judgment, with every secret thing;144 and there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed.145 But, O my God, there is another way of knowing my sins, which thou lovest better than any of these; to know them by my confession. As physic works, so it draws the peccant humour to itself, that, when it is gathered together, the weight of itself may carry that humour away; so thy Spirit returns to my memory my former sins, that, being so recollected, they may pour out themselves by confession. When I kept silence, says thy servant David, day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; but when I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.146 Thou interpretest the very purpose of confession so well, as that thou scarce leavest any new mercy for the action itself. This mercy thou leavest, that thou armest us thereupon against relapses into the sins which we have confessed. And that mercy which thy servant Augustine apprehends when he says to thee, “Thou hast forgiven me those sins which I have done, and those sins which only by thy grace I have not done”: they were done in our inclination to them, and even that inclination needs thy mercy, and that mercy he calls a pardon. And these are most truly secret sins, because they were never done, and because no other man, nor I myself, but only thou knowest, how many and how great sins I have escaped by thy grace, which, without that, I should have multiplied against thee.

X. Prayer.

O eternal and most gracious God, who as thy Son Christ Jesus, though he knew all things, yet said he knew not the day of judgment, because he knew it not so as that he might tell us; so though thou knowest all my sins, yet thou knowest them not to my comfort, except thou know them by my telling them to thee. How shall I bring to thy knowledge, by that way, those sins which I myself know not? If I accuse myself of original sin, wilt thou ask me if I know what original sin is? I know not enough of it to satisfy others, but I know enough to condemn myself, and to solicit thee. If I confess to thee the sins of my youth, wilt thou ask me if I know what those sins were? I know them not so well as to name them all, nor am sure to live hours enough to name them all (for I did them then faster than I can speak them now, when every thing that I did conduced to some sin), but I know them so well as to know that nothing but thy mercy is so infinite as they. If the naming of sins of thought, word and deed, of sins of omission and of action, of sins against thee, against my neighbour and against myself, of sins unrepented and sins relapsed into after repentance, of sins of ignorance and sins against the testimony of my conscience, of sins against thy commandments, sins against thy Son’s Prayer, and sins against our own creed, of sins against the laws of that church, and sins against the laws of that state in which thou hast given me my station; if the naming of these sins reach not home to all mine, I know what will. O Lord, pardon me, me, all those sins which thy Son Christ Jesus suffered for, who suffered for all the sins of all the world; for there is no sin amongst all those which had not been my sin, if thou hadst not been my God, and antedated me a pardon in thy preventing grace. And since sin, in the nature of it, retains still so much of the author of it that it is a serpent, insensibly insinuating itself into my soul, let thy brazen serpent (the contemplation of thy Son crucified for me) be evermore present to me, for my recovery against the sting of the first serpent; that so, as I have a Lion against a lion, the Lion of the tribe of Judah against that lion that seeks whom he may devour, so I may have a serpent against a serpent, the wisdom of the serpent against the malice of the serpent, and both against that lion and serpent, forcible and subtle temptations, thy dove with thy olive in thy ark, humility and peace and reconciliation to thee, by the ordinances of thy church. Amen.

135 Josephus.

136 Jer. ix. 21.

137 John, viii. 44.

138 John, vi. 70.

139 Psalm xix. 12.

140 Isaiah, xlvii. 10.

141 Gen. iv. 10.

142 Eccles. x. 20.

143 Gen. iii. 8.

144 Eccles. xii. 14.

145 Matt. x. 26.

146 Psalm xxxii. 3-5.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37