Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, by John Donne

XII. ————————— Spirante columba
Supposita pedibus, revocantur ad ima vapores.

They apply pigeons, to draw the vapours from the head.

XII. Meditation.

What will not kill a man if a vapour will? How great an elephant, how small a mouse destroys! To die by a bullet is the soldier’s daily bread; but few men die by hail-shot. A man is more worth than to be sold for single money; a life to be valued above a trifle. If this were a violent shaking of the air by thunder or by cannon, in that case the air is condensed above the thickness of water, of water baked into ice, almost petrified, almost made stone, and no wonder that kills; but that which is but a vapour, and a vapour not forced but breathed, should kill, that our nurse should overlay us, and air that nourishes us should destroy us, but that it is a half atheism to murmur against Nature, who is God’s immediate commissioner, who would not think himself miserable to be put into the hands of Nature, who does not only set him up for a mark for others to shoot at, but delights herself to blow him up like a glass, till she see him break, even with her own breath? Nay, if this infectious vapour were sought for, or travelled to, as Pliny hunted after the vapour of Ætna and dared and challenged Death in the form of a vapour to do his worst, and felt the worst, he died; or if this vapour were met withal in an ambush, and we surprised with it, out of a long shut well, or out of a new opened mine, who would lament, who would accuse, when we had nothing to accuse, none to lament against but fortune, who is less than a vapour? But when ourselves are the well that breathes out this exhalation, the oven that spits out this fiery smoke, the mine that spews out this suffocating and strangling damp, who can ever, after this, aggravate his sorrow by this circumstance, that it was his neighbour, his familiar friend, his brother, that destroyed him, and destroyed him with a whispering and a calumniating breath, when we ourselves do it to ourselves by the same means, kill ourselves with our own vapours? Or if these occasions of this self-destruction had any contribution from our own wills, any assistance from our own intentions, nay, from our own errors, we might divide the rebuke, and chide ourselves as much as them. Fevers upon wilful distempers of drink and surfeits, consumptions upon intemperances and licentiousness, madness upon misplacing or overbending our natural faculties, proceed from ourselves, and so as that ourselves are in the plot, and we are not only passive, but active too, to our own destruction. But what have I done, either to breed or to breathe these vapours? They tell me it is my melancholy; did I infuse, did I drink in melancholy into myself? It is my thoughtfulness; was I not made to think? It is my study; doth not my calling call for that? I have done nothing wilfully, perversely toward it, yet must suffer in it, die by it. There are too many examples of men that have been their own executioners, and that have made hard shift to be so: some have always had poison about them, in a hollow ring upon their finger, and some in their pen that they used to write with; some have beat out their brains at the wall of their prison, and some have eat the fire out of their chimneys;169 and one is said to have come nearer our case than so, to have strangled himself, though his hands were bound, by crushing his throat between his knees. But I do nothing upon myself, and yet am mine own executioner. And we have heard of death upon small occasions and by scornful instruments: a pin, a comb, a hair pulled, hath gangrened and killed; but when I have said a vapour, if I were asked again what is a vapour, I could not tell, it is so insensible a thing; so near nothing is that that reduces us to nothing. But extend this vapour, rarefy it; from so narrow a room as our natural bodies, to any politic body, to a state. That which is fume in us is, in a state rumour; and these vapours in us, which we consider here pestilent and infectious fumes, are, in a state, infecitious rumours, detracting and dishonourable calumnies, libels, The heart in that body is the king, and the bran his council; and the whole magistracy, that ties all together, is the sinews which proceed from thence; and the life of all is honour, and just respect, and due reverence; and therefore, when these vapours, these venomous rumours, are directed against these noble parts, the whole body suffers. But yet for all their privileges, they are not privileged from our misery; that as the vapours most pernicious to us arise in our own bodies, so do the most dishonourable rumours, and those that wound a state most arise at home. What ill air that I could have met in the street, what channel, what shambles, what dunghill, what vault, could have hurt me so much as these homebred vapours? What fugitive, what almsman of any foreign state, can do so much harm as a detractor, a libeller, a scornful jester at home? For as they that write of poisons, and of creatures naturally disposed to the ruin of man, do as well mention the flea as the viper170, because the flea, though he kill none, he does all the harm he can; so even these libellous and licentious jesters utter the venom they have, though sometimes virtue, and always power, be a good pigeon to draw this vapour from the head and from doing any deadly harm there.

XII. Expostulation.

My God, my God, as thy servant James, when he asks that question, What is your life? provides me my answer, It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away;171 so, if he did ask me what is your death, I am provided of my answer, it is a vapour too; and why should it not be all one to me, whether I live or die, if life and death be all one, both a vapour? Thou hast made vapour so indifferent a thing as that thy blessings and thy judgments are equally expressed by it, and is made by thee the hieroglyphic of both. Why should not that be always good by which thou hast declared thy plentiful goodness to us? A vapour went up from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.172 And that by which thou hast imputed a goodness to us, and wherein thou hast accepted our service to thee, sacrifices; for sacrifices were vapours;173 and in them it is said, that a thick cloud of incense went up to thee.174 So it is of that wherein thou comest to us, the dew of heaven, and of that wherein we come to thee, both are vapours; and he, in whom we have and are all that we are or have, temporally or spiritually, thy blessed Son, in the person of Wisdom, is called so too; She is (that is, he is) the vapour of the power of God, and the pure influence from the glory of the Almighty.175 Hast thou, thou, O my God, perfumed vapour with thine own breath, with so many sweet acceptations in thine own word, and shall this vapour receive an ill and infectious sense? It must; for, since we have displeased thee with that which is but vapour (for what is sin but a vapour, but a smoke, though such a smoke as takes away our sight, and disables us from seeing our danger), it is just that thou punish us with vapours too. For so thou dost, as the wise man tells us, thou canst punish us by those things wherein we offend thee; as he hath expressed it there, by beasts newly created, breathing vapours.176 Therefore that commination of thine, by thy prophet, I will show wonders in the heaven, and in the earth, blood and fire, and pillars of smoke;177 thine apostle, who knew thy meaning best, calls vapours of smoke.178 One prophet presents thee in thy terribleness so, There went out a smoke at his nostrils,179 and another the effect of thine anger so, The house was filled with smoke;180 and he that continues his prophecy as long as the world can continue, describes the miseries of the latter times so, Out of the bottomless pit arose a smoke, that darkened the sun, and out of that smoke came locusts, who had the power of scorpions.181 Now all smokes begin in fire, and all these will end so too: the smoke of sin and of thy wrath will end in the fire of hell. But hast thou afforded us no means to evaporate these smokes, to withdraw these vapours? When thine angels fell from heaven, thou tookest into thy care the reparation of that place, and didst it by assuming, by drawing us thither; when we fell from thee here, in this world, thou tookest into thy care the reparation of this place too, and didst it by assuming us another way, by descending down to assume our nature, in thy Son. So that though our last act be an ascending to glory (we shall ascend to the place of angels), yet our first act is to go the way of thy Son, descending, and the way of thy blessed Spirit too, who descended in the dove. Therefore hast thou been pleased to afford us this remedy in nature, by this application of a dove to our lower parts, to make these vapours in our bodies to descend, and to make that a type to us, that, by the visitation of thy Spirit, the vapours of sin shall descend, and we tread them under our feet. At the baptism of thy Son, the Dove descended, and at the exalting of thine apostles to preach, the same Spirit descended. Let us draw down the vapours of our own pride, our own wits, our own wills, our own inventions, to the simplicity of thy sacraments and the obedience of thy word; and these doves, thus applied, shall make us live.

XII. Prayer.

O eternal and most gracious God, who, though thou have suffered us to destroy ourselves, and hast not given us the power of reparation in ourselves, hast yet afforded us such means of reparation as may easily and familiarly be compassed by us, prosper, I humbly beseech thee, this means of bodily assistance in this thy ordinary creature, and prosper thy means of spiritual assistance in thy holy ordinances. And as thou hast carried this thy creature, the dove, through all thy ways through nature, and made it naturally proper to conduce medicinally to our bodily health, through the law, and made it a sacrifice for sin there, and through the gospel, and made it, and thy Spirit in it, a witness of thy Son’s baptism there, so carry it, and the qualities of it, home to my soul, and imprint there that simplicity, that mildness, that harmlessness, which thou hast imprinted by nature in this creature. That so all vapours of all disobedience to thee, being subdued under my feet, I may, in the power and triumph of thy Son, tread victoriously upon my grave, and trample upon the lion and dragon182 that lie under it to devour me. Thou, O Lord, by the prophet, callest the dove the dove of the valleys, but promisest that the dove of the valleys shall be upon the mountain.183 As thou hast laid me low in this valley of sickness, so low as that I am made fit for that question asked in the field of bones, Son of man, can these bones live?184 so, in thy good time, carry me up to these mountains of which even in this valley thou affordest me a prospect, the mountain where thou dwellest, the holy hill, unto which none can ascend but he that hath clean hands, which none can have but by that one and that strong way of making them clean, in the blood of thy Son Christ Jesus. Amen.

169 Coma, latro. in Val. Max.

170 Ardoinus.

171 James, iv. 14.

172 Gen. ii. 6.

173 Lev. xvi. 13.

174 Ezek. viii. 11.

175 Wisd. vii. 25.

176 Wisd. xi. 18.

177 Joel, ii. 30.

178 Acts, ii. 19.

179 Psalm xviii. 8.

180 Isaiah, vi. 4.

181 Rev. ix. 2.

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