Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, by John Donne

XVI. Et properare meum clamant, e turre propinqua, Obstreperæ campanæ aliorum in funere, funus.

From the bells of the church adjoining, I am daily remembered of my burial in the funerals of others.

XVI. Meditation.

We have a convenient author,234 who writ a discourse of bells when he was prisoner in Turkey. How would he have enlarged himself if he had been my fellow-prisoner in this sick bed, so near to that steeple which never ceases, no more than the harmony of the spheres, but is more heard. When the Turks took Constantinople, they melted the bells into ordnance; I have heard both bells and ordnance, but never been so much affected with those as with these bells. I have lain near a steeple235 in which there are said to be more than thirty bells, and near another, where there is one so big, as that the clapper is said to weigh more than six hundred pounds,236 yet never so affected as here. Here the bells can scarce solemnize the funeral of any person, but that I knew him, or knew that he was my neighbour: we dwelt in houses near to one another before, but now he is gone into that house into which I must follow him. There is a way of correcting the children of great persons, that other children are corrected in their behalf, and in their names, and this works upon them who indeed had more deserved it. And when these bells tell me, that now one, and now another is buried, must not I acknowledge that they have the correction due to me, and paid the debt that I owe? There is a story of a bell in a monastery237 which, when any of the house was sick to death, rung always voluntarily, and they knew the inevitableness of the danger by that. It rung once when no man was sick, but the next day one of the house fell from the steeple and died, and the bell held the reputation of a prophet still. If these bells that warn to a funeral now, were appropriated to none, may not I, by the hour of the funeral, supply? How many men that stand at an execution, if they would ask, For what dies that man? should hear their own faults condemned, and see themselves executed by attorney? We scarce hear of any man preferred, but we think of ourselves that we might very well have been that man; why might not I have been that man that is carried to his grave now? Could I fit myself to stand or sit in any man’s place, and not to lie in any man’s grave? I may lack much of the good parts of the meanest, but I lack nothing of the mortality of the weakest; they may have acquired better abilities than I, but I was born to as many infirmities as they. To be an incumbent by lying down in a grave, to be a doctor by teaching mortification by example, by dying, though I may have seniors, others may be older than I, yet I have proceeded apace in a good university, and gone a great way in a little time, by the furtherance of a vehement fever, and whomsoever these bells bring to the ground to-day, if he and I had been compared yesterday, perchance I should have been thought likelier to come to this preferment then than he. God hath kept the power of death in his own hands, lest any man should bribe death. If man knew the gain of death, the ease of death, he would solicit, he would provoke death to assist him by any hand which he might use. But as when men see many of their own professions preferred, it ministers a hope that that may light upon them; so when these hourly bells tell me of so many funerals of men like me, it presents, if not a desire that it may, yet a comfort whensoever mine shall come.

XVI. Expostulation.

My God, my God, I do not expostulate with thee, but with them who dare do that; who dare expostulate with thee, when in the voice of thy church thou givest allowance to this ceremony of bells at funerals. Is it enough to refuse it, because it was in use among the Gentiles? so were funerals too. Is it because some abuses may have crept in amongst Christians? Is that enough, that their ringing hath been said to drive away evil spirits? Truly, that is so far true, as that the evil spirit is vehemently vexed in their ringing, therefore, because that action brings the congregation together, and unites God and his people, to the destruction of that kingdom which the evil spirit usurps. In the first institution of thy church in this world, in the foundation of thy militant church amongst the Jews, thou didst appoint the calling of the assembly in to be by trumpet;238 and when they were in, then thou gavest them the sound of bells in the garment of thy priest.239 In the triumphant church, thou employest both too, but in an inverted order; we enter into the triumphant church by the sound of bells (for we enter when we die); and then we receive our further edification, or consummation, by the sound of trumpets at the resurrection. The sound of thy trumpets thou didst impart to secular and civil uses too, but the sound of bells only to sacred. Lord, let not us break the communion of saints in that which was intended for the advancement of it; let not that pull us asunder from one another, which was intended for the assembling of us in the militant, and associating of us to the triumphant church. But he, for whose funeral these bells ring now, was at home, at his journey’s end yesterday; why ring they now? A man, that is a world, is all the things in the world; he is an army, and when an army marches, the van may lodge to-night where the rear comes not till to-morrow. A man extends to his act and to his example; to that which he does, and that which he teaches; so do those things that concern him, so do these bells; that which rung yesterday was to convey him out of the world in his van, in his soul; that which rung to-day was to bring him in his rear, in his body, to the church; and this continuing of ringing after his entering is to bring him to me in the application. Where I lie I could hear the psalm, and did join with the congregation in it; but I could not hear the sermon, and these latter bells are a repetition sermon to me. But, O my God, my God, do I that have this fever need other remembrances of my mortality? Is not mine own hollow voice, voice enough to pronounce that to me? Need I look upon a death’s head in a ring, that have one in my face? or go for death to my neighbour’s house, that have him in my bosom? We cannot, we cannot, O my God, take in too many helps for religious duties; I know I cannot have any better image of thee than thy Son, nor any better image of him than his Gospel; yet must not I with thanks confess to thee, that some historical pictures of his have sometimes put me upon better meditations than otherwise I should have fallen upon? I know thy church needed not to have taken in, from Jew, or Gentile, any supplies for the exaltation of thy glory, or our devotion; of absolute necessity I know she needed not; but yet we owe thee our thanks, that thou hast given her leave to do so, and that as, in making us Christians, thou didst not destroy that which we were before, natural men, so, in the exalting of our religious devotions now we are Christians, thou hast been pleased to continue to us those assistances which did work upon the affections of natural men before; for thou lovest a good man as thou lovest a good Christian; and though grace be merely from me, yet thou dost not plant grace but in good natures.

XVI. Prayer.

O eternal and most gracious God, who having consecrated our living bodies to thine own Spirit, and made us temples of the Holy Ghost, dost also require a respect to be given to these temples, even when the priest is gone out of them, to these bodies when the soul is departed from them, I bless and glorify thy name, that as thou takest care in our life of every hair of our head, so dost thou also of every grain of ashes after our death. Neither dost thou only do good to us all in life and death, but also wouldst have us do good to one another, as in a holy life, so in those things which accompany our death. In that contemplation I make account that I hear this dead brother of ours, who is now carried out to his burial, to speak to me, and to preach my funeral sermon in the voice of these bells. In him, O God, thou hast accomplished to me even the request of Dives to Abraham; thou hast sent one from the dead to speak unto me. He speaks to me aloud from that steeple; he whispers to me at these curtains, and he speaks thy words: Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth.240 Let this prayer therefore, O my God, be as my last gasp, my expiring, my dying in thee; that if this be the hour of my transmigration, I may die the death of a sinner, drowned in my sins, in the blood of thy Son; and if I live longer, yet I may now die the death of the righteous, die to sin; which death is a resurrection to a new life. Thou killest and thou givest life: whichsoever comes, it comes from thee; which way soever it comes, let me come to thee.

234 Magius.

235 Antwerp.

236 Roan.

237 Roccha.

238 Numb. x. 2.

239 Exod. xviii. 33-4.

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