Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, by John Donne

XIX. Oceano tandem emenso, aspicienda resurgit Terra; vident, justis, medici, jam cocta mederi Se posse, indiciis.

At last the physicians, after a long and stormy voyage, see land: they have so good signs of the concoction of the disease, as that they may safely proceed to purge.

XIX. Meditation.

All this while the physicians themselves have been patients, patiently attending when they should see any land in this sea, any earth, any cloud, any indication of concoction in these waters. Any disorder of mine, any pretermission of theirs, exalts the disease, accelerates the rages of it; no diligence accelerates the concoction, the maturity of the disease; they must stay till the season of the sickness come; and till it be ripened of itself, and then they may put to their hand to gather it before it fall off, but they cannot hasten the ripening. Why should we look for it in a disease, which is the disorder, the discord, the irregularity, the commotion and rebellion of the body? It were scarce a disease if it could be ordered and made obedient to our times. Why should we look for that in disorder, in a disease, when we cannot have it in nature, who is so regular and so pregnant, so forward to bring her work to perfection and to light? Yet we cannot awake the July flowers in January, nor retard the flowers of the spring to autumn. We cannot bid the fruits come in May, nor the leaves to stick on in December. A woman that is weak cannot put off her ninth month to a tenth for her delivery, and say she will stay till she be stronger; nor a queen cannot hasten it to a seventh, that she may be ready for some other pleasure. Nature (if we look for durable and vigorous effects) will not admit preventions, nor anticipations, nor obligations upon her, for they are precontracts, and she will be left to her liberty. Nature would not be spurred, nor forced to mend her pace; nor power, the power of man, greatness, loves not that kind of violence neither. There are of them that will give, that will do justice, that will pardon, but they have their own seasons for all these, and he that knows not them shall starve before that gift come, and ruin before the justice, and die before the pardon save him. Some tree bears no fruit, except much dung be laid about it; and justice comes not from some till they be richly manured: some trees require much visiting, much watering, much labour; and some men give not their fruits but upon importunity: some trees require incision, and pruning, and lopping; some men must be intimidated and syndicated with commissions, before they will deliver the fruits of justice: some trees require the early and the often access of the sun; some men open not, but upon the favours and letters of court mediation: some trees must be housed and kept within doors; some men lock up, not only their liberality, but their justice and their compassion, till the solicitation of a wife, or a son, or a friend, or a servant, turn the key. Reward is the season of one man, and importunity of another; fear the season of one man, and favour of another; friendship the season of one man, and natural affection of another; and he that knows not their seasons, nor cannot stay them, must lose the fruits: as nature will not, so power and greatness will not be put to change their seasons, and shall we look for this indulgence in a disease, or think to shake it off before it be ripe? All this while, therefore, we are but upon a defensive war, and that is but a doubtful state; especially where they who are besieged do know the best of their defences, and do not know the worst of their enemy’s power; when they cannot mend their works within, and the enemy can increase his numbers without. O how many far more miserable, and far more worthy to be less miserable than I, are besieged with this sickness, and lack their sentinels, their physicians to watch, and lack their munition, their cordials to defend, and perish before the enemy’s weakness might invite them to sally, before the disease show any declination, or admit any way of working upon itself? In me the siege is so far slackened, as that we may come to fight, and so die in the field, if I die, and not in a prison.

XIX. Expostulation.

My God, my God, thou art a direct God, may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all that thou sayest? but thou art also (Lord, I intend it to thy glory, and let no profane misinterpreter abuse it to thy diminution), thou art a figurative, a metaphorical God too; a God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extensions, such spreadings, such curtains of allegories, such third heavens of hyperboles, so harmonious elocutions, so retired and so reserved expressions, so commanding persuasions, so persuading commandments, such sinews even in thy milk, and such things in thy words, as all profane authors seem of the seed of the serpent that creeps, thou art the Dove that flies. O, what words but thine can express the inexpressible texture and composition of thy word, in which to one man that argument that binds his faith to believe that to be the word of God, is the reverent simplicity of the word, and to another the majesty of the word; and in which two men equally pious may meet, and one wonder that all should not understand it, and the other as much that any man should. So, Lord, thou givest us the same earth to labour on and to lie in, a house and a grave of the same earth; so, Lord, thou givest us the same word for our satisfaction and for our inquisition, for our instruction and for our admiration too; for there are places that thy servants Hierom and Augustine would scarce believe (when they grew warm by mutual letters) of one another, that they understood them, and yet both Hierom and Augustine call upon persons whom they knew to be far weaker than they thought one another (old women and young maids) to read the Scriptures, without confining them to these or those places. Neither art thou thus a figurative, a metaphorical God in thy word only, but in thy works too. The style of thy works, the phrase of thine actions, is metaphorical The institution of thy whole worship in the old law was a continual allegory; types and figures overspread all, and figures flowed into figures, and poured themselves out into farther figures; circumcision carried a figure of baptism, and baptism carries a figure of that purity which we shall have in perfection in the new Jerusalem. Neither didst thou speak and work in this language only in the time of thy prophets; but since thou spokest in thy Son it is so too. How often, how much more often, doth thy Son call himself a way, and a light, and a gate, and a vine, and bread, than the Son of God, or of man? How much oftener doth he exhibit a metaphorical Christ, than a real, a literal? This hath occasioned thine ancient servants, whose delight it was to write after thy copy, to proceed the same way in their expositions of the Scriptures, and in their composing both of public liturgies and of private prayers to thee, to make their accesses to thee in such a kind of language as thou wast pleased to speak to them, in a figurative, in a metaphorical language, in which manner I am bold to call the comfort which I receive now in this sickness in the indication of the concoction and maturity thereof, in certain clouds and recidences, which the physicians observe, a discovering of land from sea after a long and tempestuous voyage. But wherefore, O my God, hast thou presented to us the afflictions and calamities of this life in the name of waters? so often in the name of waters, and deep waters, and seas of waters? Must we look to be drowned? are they bottomless, are they boundless? That is not the dialect of thy language; thou hast given a remedy against the deepest water by water; against the inundation of sin by baptism; and the first life that thou gavest to any creatures was in waters: therefore thou dost not threaten us with an irremediableness when our affliction is a sea. It is so if we consider ourselves; so thou callest Genezareth, which was but a lake, and not salt, a sea; so thou callest the Mediterranean sea still the great sea, because the inhabitants saw no other sea; they that dwelt there thought a lake a sea, and the others thought a little sea, the greatest, and we that know not the afflictions of others call our own the heaviest. But, O my God, that is truly great that overflows the channel, that is really a great affliction which is above my strength; but thou, O God, art my strength, and then what can be above it? Mountains shake with the swelling of thy sea;265 secular mountains, men strong in power; spiritual mountains, men strong in grace, are shaken with afflictions; but thou layest up thy sea in storehouses;266 even thy corrections are of thy treasure, and thou wilt not waste thy corrections; when they have done their service to humble thy patient, thou wilt call them in again, for thou givest the sea thy decree, that the waters should not pass thy commandment.267 All our waters shall run into Jordan, and thy servants passed Jordan dry foot;268 they shall run into the red sea (the sea of thy Son’s blood), and the red sea, that red sea, drowns none of thine: but they that sail on the sea tell of the danger thereof.269 I that am yet in this affliction, owe thee the glory of speaking of it; but, as the wise man bids me, I say, I may speak much and come short, wherefore in sum thou art all.270 Since thou art so, O my God, and affliction is a sea too deep for us, what is our refuge? Thine ark, thy ship. In all other afflictions, those means which thou hast ordained in this sea, in sickness, thy ship is thy physician. Thou hast made a way in the sea, and a safe path in the waters, showing that thou canst save from all dangers, yea, though a man went to sea without art:271 yet, where I find all that, I find this added; nevertheless thou wouldst not, that the work of thy wisdom should be idle.272 Thou canst save without means, but thou hast told no man that thou wilt; thou hast told every man that thou wilt not.273 When the centurion believed the master of the ship more than St. Paul, they were all opened to a great danger; this was a preferring of thy means before thee, the author of the means: but, my God, though thou beest every where: I have no promise of appearing to me but in thy ship, thy blessed Son preached out of a ship:274 the means is preaching, he did that; and the ship was a type of the church, he did it there. Thou gavest St. Paul the lives of all them that sailed with him;275 if they had not been in the ship with him, the gift had not extended to them. As soon as thy Son was come out of the ship, immediately there met him, out of the tombs, a man with an unclean spirit, and no man could hold him, no not with chains.276 Thy Son needed no use of means; yet there we apprehend the danger to us, if we leave the ship, the means, in this case the physician. But as they are ships to us in those seas, so is there a ship to them too in which they are to stay. Give me leave, O my God, to assist myself with such a construction of these words of thy servant Paul to the centurion, when the mariners would have left the ship, Except these abide in the ship, you cannot be safe:277 except they who are our ships, the physicians, abide in that which is theirs, and our ship, the truth, and the sincere and religious worship of thee and thy gospel, we cannot promise ourselves so good safety; for though we have our ship, the physician, he hath not his ship, religion; and means are not means but in their concatenation, as they depend and are chained together. The ships are great, says thy apostle, but a helm turns them;278 the men are learned, but their religion turns their labours to good, and therefore it was a heavy curse when the third part of the ships perished:279 it is a heavy case where either all religion, or true religion, should forsake many of these ships whom thou hast sent to convey us over these seas. But, O my God, my God, since I have my ship and they theirs, I have them and they have thee, why are we yet no nearer land? As soon as thy Son’s disciple had taken him into the ship, immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.280 Why have not they and I this dispatch? Every thing is immediately done, which is done when thou wouldst have it done. Thy purpose terminates every action, and what was done before that is undone yet. Shall that slacken my hope? thy prophet from thee hath forbidden it. It is good that a man should both hope, and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord.281 Thou puttest off many judgments till the last day, and many pass this life without any; and shall not I endure the putting off thy mercy for a day? And yet, O my God, thou puttest me not to that, for the assurance of future mercy is present mercy. But what is my assurance now? what is my seal? It is but a cloud; that which my physicians call a cloud, in that which gives them their indication. But a cloud? Thy great seal to all the world, the rainbow, that secured the world for ever from drowning, was but a reflection upon a cloud. A cloud itself was a pillar which guided the church,282 and the glory of God not only was, but appeared in a cloud.283 Let me return, O my God, to the consideration of thy servant Elijah’s proceeding in a time of desperate drought;284 he bids them look towards the sea; they look, and see nothing. He bids them again and again seven times; and at the seventh time they saw a little cloud rising out of the sea, and presently they had their desire of rain. Seven days, O my God, have we looked for this cloud, and now we have it; none of thy indications are frivolous, thou makest thy signs seals, and thy seals effects, and thy effects consolation and restitution, wheresoever thou mayst receive glory by that way.

XIX. Prayer.

O eternal and most gracious God, who though thou passedst over infinite millions of generations, before thou camest to a creation of this world, yet when thou beganst, didst never intermit that work, but continuedst day to day, till thou hadst perfected all the work, and deposed it in the hands and rest of a sabbath, though thou have been pleased to glorify thyself in a long exercise of my patience, with an expectation of thy declaration of thyself in this my sickness, yet since thou hast now of thy goodness afforded that which affords us some hope, if that be still the way of thy glory, proceed in that way and perfect that work, and establish me in a sabbath and rest in thee, by this thy seal of bodily restitution. Thy priests came up to thee by steps in the temple; thy angels came down to Jacob by steps upon the ladder; we find no stair by which thou thyself camest to Adam in paradise, nor to Sodom in thine anger; for thou, and thou only, art able to do all at once. But O Lord, I am not weary of thy pace, nor weary of mine own patience. I provoke thee not with a prayer, not with a wish, not with a hope, to more haste than consists with thy purpose, nor look that any other thing should have entered into thy purpose, but thy glory. To hear thy steps coming towards me is the same comfort as to see thy face present with me; whether thou do the work of a thousand years in a day, or extend the work of a day to a thousand years, as long as thou workest, it is light and comfort. Heaven itself is but an extension of the same joy; and an extension of this mercy, to proceed at thy leisure, in the way of restitution, is a manifestation of heaven to me here upon earth. From that people to whom thou appearedst in signs and in types, the Jews, thou art departed, because they trusted in them; but from thy church, to whom thou hast appeared in thyself, in thy Son, thou wilt never depart, because we cannot trust too much in him. Though thou have afforded me these signs of restitution, yet if I confide in them, and begin to say, all was but a natural accident, and nature begins to discharge herself, and she will perfect the whole work, my hope shall vanish because it is not in thee. If thou shouldst take thy hand utterly from me, and have nothing to do with me, nature alone were able to destroy me; but if thou withdraw thy helping hand, alas, how frivolous are the helps of nature, how impotent the assistances of art? As therefore the morning dew is a pawn of the evening fatness, so, O Lord, let this day’s comfort be the earnest of to-morrow’s, so far as may conform me entirely to thee, to what end, and by what way soever thy mercy have appointed me.

265 Psalm xlvi. 3.

266 Psalm xxxiii. 7.

267 Prov. viii. 29.

268 Josh. iii. 17.

269 Ecclus. xliii. 24.

270 Ecclus. xliii. 27.

271 Wisd. xiv. 3.

272 Wisd. xiv. 5.

273 Acts, xxvii. 11.

274 Luke, v. 3.

275 Acts, xxvii. 24.

276 Mark, v. 2.

277 Acts, xxvii. 31.

278 James, iii. 4.

279 Rev. viii. 9.

280 John, vi. 21.

281 Lam. iii. 26.

282 Exod. xiii. 21.

283 Exod. xvi. 10.

284 1 Kings, xviii. 43.

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