Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, by John Donne

XVIII. ———————————— At inde
Mortuus es, sonitu celeri, pulsuque agitato.

The bell rings out, and tells me in him, that I am dead.

XVIII. Meditation.

The bell rings out, the pulse thereof is changed; the tolling was a faint and intermitting pulse, upon one side; this stronger, and argues more and better life. His soul is gone out, and as a man who had a lease of one thousand years after the expiration of a short one, or an inheritance after the life of a man in a consumption, he is now entered into the possession of his better estate. His soul is gone, whither? Who saw it come in, or who saw it go out? Nobody; yet everybody is sure he had one, and hath none. If I will ask mere philosophers what the soul is, I shall find amongst them that will tell me, it is nothing but the temperament and harmony, and just and equal composition of the elements in the body, which produces all those faculties which we ascribe to the soul; and so in itself is nothing, no separable substance that overlives the body. They see the soul is nothing else in other creatures, and they affect an impious humility to think as low of man. But if my soul were no more than the soul of a beast, I could not think so; that soul that can reflect upon itself, consider itself, is more than so. If I will ask, not mere philosophers, but mixed men, philosophical divines, how the soul, being a separate substance, enters into man, I shall find some that will tell me, that it is by generation and procreation from parents, because they think it hard to charge the soul with the guiltiness of original sin if the soul were infused into a body in which it must necessarily grow foul, and contract original sin whether it will or no; and I shall find some that will tell me, that it is by immediate infusion from God, because they think it hard to maintain an immortality in such a soul, as should be begotten and derived with the body from mortal parents. If I will ask, not a few men, but almost whole bodies, whole churches, what becomes of the souls of the righteous at the departing thereof from the body, I shall be told by some, that they attend an expiation, a purification in a place of torment; by some, that they attend the fruition of the sight of God in a place of rest, but yet but of expectation; by some, that they pass to an immediate possession of the presence of God. St. Augustine studied the nature of the soul as much as any thing, but the salvation of the soul; and he sent an express messenger to St. Hierome, to consult of some things concerning the soul; but he satisfies himself with this: “Let the departure of my soul to salvation be evident to my faith, and I care the less how dark the entrance of my soul into my body be to my reason.” It is the going out, more than the coming in, that concerns us. This soul this bell tells me is gone out, whither? Who shall tell me that? I know not who it is, much less what he was, the condition of the man, and the course of his life, which should tell me whither he is gone, I know not. I was not there in his sickness, nor at his death; I saw not his way nor his end, nor can ask them who did, thereby to conclude or argue whither he is gone. But yet I have one nearer me than all these, mine own charity; I ask that, and that tells me he is gone to everlasting rest, and joy, and glory. I owe him a good opinion; it is but thankful charity in me, because I received benefit and instruction from him when his bell tolled; and I, being made the fitter to pray by that disposition, wherein I was assisted by his occasion, did pray for him; and I pray not without faith; so I do charitably, so I do faithfully believe, that that soul is gone to everlasting rest, and joy, and glory. But for the body, how poor a wretched thing is that? we cannot express it so fast, as it grows worse and worse. That body, which scarce three minutes since was such a house, as that that soul, which made but one step from thence to heaven, was scarce thoroughly content to leave that for heaven; that body hath lost the name of a dwelling-house, because none dwells in it, and is making haste to lose the name of a body, and dissolve to putrefaction. Who would not be affected to see a clear and sweet river in the morning, grow a kennel of muddy land-water by noon, and condemned to the saltness of the sea by night? and how lame a picture, how faint a representation is that, of the precipitation of man’s body to dissolution? Now all the parts built up, and knit by a lovely soul, now but a statue of clay, and now these limbs melted off, as if that clay were but snow; and now the whole house is but a handful of sand, so much dust, and but a peck of rubbish, so much bone. If he who, as this bell tells me, is gone now, were some excellent artificer, who comes to him for a cloak or for a garment now? or for counsel, if he were a lawyer? if a magistrate, for justice? Man, before he hath his immortal soul, hath a soul of sense, and a soul of vegetation before that: this immortal soul did not forbid other souls to be in us before, but when this soul departs, it carries all with it; no more vegetation, no more sense. Such a mother-in-law is the earth, in respect of our natural mother; in her womb we grew, and when she was delivered of us, we were planted in some place, in some calling in the world; in the womb of the earth we diminish, and when she is delivered of us, our grave opened for another; we are not transplanted, but transported, our dust blown away with profane dust, with every wind.

XVIII. Expostulation.

My God, my God, if expostulation be too bold a word, do thou mollify it with another; let it be wonder in myself, let it be but problem to others; but let me ask, why wouldst thou not suffer those that serve thee in holy services, to do any office about the dead,247 nor assist at their funeral? Thou hadst no counsellor, thou needst none; thou hast no controller, thou admittedst none. Why do I ask? In ceremonial things (as that was) any convenient reason is enough; who can be sure to propose that reason, that moved thee in the institution thereof? I satisfy myself with this; that in those times the Gentiles were over-full of an over-reverent respect to the memory of the dead: a great part of the idolatry of the nations flowed from that; an over-amorous devotion, an over-zealous celebrating, and over-studious preserving of the memories, and the pictures of some dead persons; and by the vain glory of men, they entered into the world,248 and their statues and pictures contracted an opinion of divinity by age: that which was at first but a picture of a friend grew a god in time, as the wise man notes, They called them gods, which were the work of an ancient hand.249 And some have assigned a certain time, when a picture should come out of minority, and be at age to be a god in sixty years after it is made. Those images of men that had life, and some idols of other things which never had any being, are by one common name called promiscuously dead; and for that the wise man reprehends the idolater, for health he prays to that which is weak, and for life he prays to that which is dead.250 Should we do so? says thy prophet;251 should we go from the living to the dead? So much ill then being occasioned by so much religious compliment exhibited to the dead, thou, O God (I think), wouldst therefore inhibit thy principal holy servants from contributing any thing at all to this dangerous intimation of idolatry; and that the people might say, Surely those dead men are not so much to be magnified as men mistake, since God will not suffer his holy officers so much as to touch them, not to see them. But those dangers being removed, thou, O my God, dost certainly allow that we should do offices of piety to the dead and that we should draw instructions to piety from the dead. Is not this, O my God, a holy kind of raising up seed to my dead brother, if I, by the meditation of his death produce a better life in myself? It is the blessing upon Reuben, Let Reuben live, and not die, and let not his men be few;252 let him propagate many. And it is a malediction, That that dieth, let it die,253 let it do no good in dying; for trees without fruit, thou, by thy apostle, callest twice dead.254 It is a second death, if none live the better by me after my death, by the manner of my death. Therefore may I justly think, that thou madest that a way to convey to the Egyptians a fear of thee and a fear of death, that there was not a house where there was not one dead;255 for thereupon the Egyptians said, We are all dead men: the death of others should catechise us to death. Thy Son Christ Jesus is the first begotten of the dead;256 he rises first, the eldest brother, and he is my master in this science of death; but yet, for me, I am a younger brother too, to this man who died now, and to every man whom I see or hear to die before me, and all they are ushers to me in this school of death. I take therefore that which thy servant David’s wife said to him, to be said to me, If thou save not thy life to-night, to-morrow thou shalt be slain.257 If the death of this man work not upon me now, I shall die worse than if thou hadst not afforded me this help; for thou hast sent him in this bell to me, as thou didst send to the angel of Sardis, with commission to strengthen the things that remain, and that are ready to die,258 that in this weakness of body I might receive spiritual strength by these occasions. This is my strength, that whether thou say to me, as thine angel said to Gideon, Peace be unto thee, fear not, thou shalt not die;259 or whether thou say, as unto Aaron, Thou shalt die there;260 yet thou wilt preserve that which is ready to die, my soul, from the worst death, that of sin. Zimri died for his sins, says thy Spirit, which he sinned in doing evil; and in his sin which he did to make Israel sin;261 for his sins, his many sins, and then in his sin, his particular sin. For my sins I shall die whensoever I die, for death is the wages of sin; but I shall die in my sin, in that particular sin of resisting thy Spirit, if I apply not thy assistances. Doth it not call us to a particular consideration that thy blessed Son varies his form of commination, and aggravates it in the variation, when he says to the Jews (because they refused the light offered), You shall die in your sin:262 and then when they proceeded to farther disputations, and vexations, and temptations, he adds, You shall die in your sins;263 he multiplies the former expression to a plural. In this sin, and in all your sins, doth not the resisting of thy particular helps at last draw upon us the guiltiness of all our former sins? May not the neglecting of this sound ministered to me in this man’s death, bring me to that misery, so that I, whom the Lord of life loved so as to die for me, shall die, and a creature of mine own shall be immortal; that I shall die, and the worm of mine own conscience shall never die?264

XVIII. Prayer.

O eternal and most gracious God, I have a new occasion of thanks, and a new occasion of prayer to thee from the ringing of this bell. Thou toldest me in the other voice that I was mortal and approaching to death; in this I may hear thee say that I am dead in an irremediable, in an irrecoverable state for bodily health. If that be thy language in this voice, how infinitely am I bound to thy heavenly Majesty for speaking so plainly unto me? for even that voice, that I must die now, is not the voice of a judge that speaks by way of condemnation, but of a physician that presents health in that. Thou presentest me death as the cure of my disease, not as the exaltation of it; if I mistake thy voice herein, if I overrun thy pace, and prevent thy hand, and imagine death more instant upon me than thou hast bid him be, yet the voice belongs to me; I am dead, I was born dead, and from the first laying of these mud walls in my conception, they have mouldered away, and the whole course of life is but an active death. Whether this voice instruct me that I am a dead man now, or remember me that I have been a dead man all this while. I humbly thank thee for speaking in this voice to my soul; and I humbly beseech thee also to accept my prayers in his behalf, by whose occasion this voice, this sound, is come to me. For though he be by death transplanted to thee, and so in possession of inexpressible happiness there, yet here upon earth thou hast given us such a portion of heaven, as that though men dispute whether thy saints in heaven do know what we in earth in particular do stand in need of, yet, without all disputation, we upon earth do know what thy saints in heaven lack yet for the consummation of their happiness, and therefore thou hast afforded us the dignity that we may pray for them. That therefore this soul, now newly departed to thy kingdom, may quickly return to a joyful reunion to that body which it hath left, and that we with it may soon enjoy the full consummation of all in body and soul, I humbly beg at thy hand, O our most merciful God, for thy Son Christ Jesus’ sake. That that blessed Son of thine may have the consummation of his dignity, by entering into his last office, the office of a judge, and may have society of human bodies in heaven, as well as he hath had ever of souls; and that as thou hatest sin itself, thy hate to sin may be expressed in the abolishing of all instruments of sin, the allurements of this world, and the world itself; and all the temporary revenges of sin, the stings of sickness and of death; and all the castles, and prisons, and monuments of sin, in the grave. That time may be swallowed up in eternity, and hope swallowed in possession, and ends swallowed in infiniteness, and all men ordained to salvation in body and soul be one entire and everlasting sacrifice to thee, where thou mayst receive delight from them, and they glory from thee, for evermore. Amen.

247 Levit. xxi. 1.

248 Wisd. xiv. 14.

249 Wisd. xiii. 10.

250 Wisd. xiii. 18.

251 Isaiah, viii. 19.

252 Deut. xxxiii. 6.

253 Zech. xi. 9.

254 Jude, 12.

255 Exod. xii. 30.

256 Rev. i. 5.

257 1 Sam. xix. 11.

258 Rev. iii. 2.

259 Judg. vi, 23.

260 Numb. xx. 26.

261 1 Kings, xvi. 19.

262 John, viii. 21.

263 John, viii. 24.

264 Isaiah, lxvi. 24.

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