Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, by John Donne

XXIII. Metusque, relabi.

They warn me of the fearful danger of relapsing.

XXIII. Meditation.

It is not in man’s body, as it is in the city, that when the bell hath rung, to cover your fire, and rake up the embers, you may lie down and sleep without fear. Though you have by physic and diet raked up the embers of your disease, still there is a fear of a relapse; and the greater danger is in that. Even in pleasures and in pains, there is a proprietary, a meum et tuum, and a man is most affected with that pleasure which is his, his by former enjoying and experience, and most intimidated with those pains which are his, his by a woful sense of them, in former afflictions. A covetous person, who hath preoccupated all his senses, filled all his capacities with the delight of gathering, wonders how any man can have any taste of any pleasure in any openness or liberality; so also in bodily pains, in a fit of the stone, the patient wonders why any man should call the gout a pain; and he that hath felt neither, but the toothache, is as much afraid of a fit of that as either of the other of either of the other. Diseases which we never felt in ourselves come but to a compassion of others that have endured them; nay, compassion itself comes to no great degree if we have not felt in some proportion in ourselves that which we lament and condole in another. But when we have had those torments in their exaltation ourselves, we tremble at relapse. When we must pant through all those fiery heats, and sail through all those overflowing sweats, when we must watch through all those long nights, and mourn through all those long days (days and nights, so long as that Nature herself shall seem to be perverted, and to have put the longest day, and the longest night, which should be six months asunder, into one natural, unnatural day), when we must stand at the same bar, expect the return of physicians from their consultations, and not be sure of the same verdict, in any good indications, when we must go the same way over again, and not see the same issue, that is a state, a condition, a calamity, in respect of which any other sickness were a convalescence, and any greater, less. It adds to the affliction, that relapses are (and for the most part justly) imputed to ourselves, as occasioned by some disorder in us; and so we are not only passive but active in our own ruin; we do not only stand under a falling house, but pull it down upon us; and we are not only executed (that implies guiltiness), but we are executioners (that implies dishonour), and executioners of ourselves (and that implies impiety). And we fall from that comfort which we might have in our first sickness, from that meditation, “Alas, how generally miserable is man, and how subject to diseases” (for in that it is some degree of comfort that we are but in the state common to all), we fall, I say, to this discomfort, and self-accusing, and self-condemning: “Alas, how improvident, and in that how unthankful to God and his instruments, am I in making so ill use of so great benefits, in destroying so soon so long a work, in relapsing, by my disorder, to that from which they had delivered me”: and so my meditation is fearfully transferred from the body to the mind, and from the consideration of the sickness to that sin, that sinful carelessness, by which I have occasioned my relapse. And amongst the many weights that aggravate a relapse, this also is one, that a relapse proceeds with a more violent dispatch, and more irremediably, because it finds the country weakened, and depopulated before. Upon a sickness, which as yet appears not, we can scarce fix a fear, because we know not what to fear; but as fear is the busiest and irksomest affection, so is a relapse (which is still ready to come) into that which is but newly gone, the nearest object, the most immediate exercise of that affection of fear.

XXIII. Expostulation.

My God, my God, my God, thou mighty Father, who hast been my physician; thou glorious Son, who hast been my physic; thou blessed Spirit, who hast prepared and applied all to me, shall I alone be able to overthrow the work of all you, and relapse into those spiritual sicknesses from which infinite mercies have withdrawn me? Though thou, O my God, have filled my measure with mercy, yet my measure was not so large as that of thy whole people, the nation, the numerous and glorious nation of Israel; and yet how often, how often did they fall into relapses! And then, where is my assurance? How easily thou passedst over many other sins in them, and how vehemently thou insistedst in those into which they so often relapsed; those were their murmurings against thee, in thine instruments and ministers, and their turnings upon other gods, and embracing the idolatries of their neighbours. O my God, how slippery a way, to how irrecoverable a bottom, is murmuring; and how near thyself he comes, that murmurs at him who comes from thee! The magistrate is the garment in which thou apparelest thyself, and he that shoots at the clothes cannot say he meant no ill to the man: thy people were fearful examples of that, for how often did their murmuring against thy ministers end in a departing from thee! When they would have other officers, they would have other gods; and still to-day’s murmuring was to-morrow’s idolatry; as their murmuring induced idolatry, and they relapsed often into both, I have found in myself, O my God (O my God, thou hast found it in me, and thy finding it hast showed it to me) such a transmigration of sin, as makes me afraid of relapsing too. The soul of sin (for we have made sin immortal, and it must have a soul), the soul of sin is disobedience to thee; and when one sin hath been dead in me, that soul hath passed into another sin. Our youth dies, and the sins of our youth with it; some sins die a violent death, and some a natural; poverty, penury, imprisonment, banishment, kill some sins in us, and some die of age; many ways we become unable to do that sin, but still the soul lives and passes into another sin; and that that was licentiousness grows ambition, and that comes to indevotion and spiritual coldness: we have three lives in our state of sin, and where the sins of youth expire, those of our middle years enter, and those of our age after them. This transmigration of sin found in myself, makes me afraid, O my God, of a relapse; but the occasion of my fear is more pregnant than so, for I have had, I have multiplied relapses already. Why, O my God, is a relapse so odious to thee? Not so much their murmuring and their idolatry, as their relapsing into those sins, seems to affect thee in thy disobedient people. They limited the holy One of Israel,331 as thou complainest of them: that was a murmuring; but before thou chargest them with the fault itself, in the same place thou chargest them with the iterating, the redoubling of that fault before the fault was named; How oft did they provoke me in the wilderness, and grieve me in the desert? That which brings thee to that exasperation against them, as to say, that thou wouldst break thine own oath rather than leave them unpunished (They shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers) was because they had tempted thee ten times,332 infinitely; upon that thou threatenest with that vehemency, If you do in any wise go back, know for a certainty God will no more drive out any of these nations from before you; but they shall be snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, till ye perish.333 No tongue but thine own, O my God, can express thine indignation against a nation relapsing to idolatry. Idolatry in any nation is deadly, but when the disease is complicated with a relapse (a knowledge and a profession of a former recovery), it is desperate; and thine anger works, not only where the evidence is pregnant and without exception (so thou sayest when it is said, that certain men in a city have withdrawn others to idolatry, and that inquiry is made, and it is found true; the city, and the inhabitants, and the cattle are to be destroyed),334 but where there is but a suspicion, a rumour, of such a relapse to idolatry, thine anger is awakened, and thine indignation stirred. In the government of thy servant Joshua, there was a voice, that Reuben and Gad, with those of Manasseh, had built a new altar.335 Israel doth not send one to inquire, but the whole congregation gathered to go up to war against them,336 and there went a prince of every tribe; and they object to them, not so much their present declination to idolatry, as their relapse: Is the iniquity of Peor too little for us?337 an idolatry formerly committed, and punished with the slaughter of twenty-four thousand delinquents. At last Reuben and Gad satisfy them, that that altar was not built for idolatry, but built as a pattern of theirs, that they might thereby profess themselves to be of the same profession that they were, and so the army returned without blood. Even where it comes not so far as to an actual relapse into idolatry, thou, O my God, becomest sensible of it; though thou, who seest the heart all the way, preventest all dangerous effects where there was no ill meaning, however there were occasion of suspicious rumours given to thine Israel of relapsing. So odious to thee, and so aggravating a weight upon sin is a relapse. But, O my God, why is it so? so odious? It must be so, because he that hath sinned and then repented, hath weighed God and the devil in a balance; he hath heard God and the devil plead, and after hearing given judgment on that side to which he adheres by his subsequent practice;338 if he return to his sin, he decrees for Satan, he prefers sin before grace, and Satan before God; and in contempt of God, declares the precedency for his adversary; and a contempt wounds deeper than an injury, a relapse deeper than a blasphemy. And when thou hast told me that a relapse is more odious to thee, need I ask why it is more dangerous, more pernicious to me? Is there any other measure of the greatness of my danger, than the greatness of thy displeasure? How fitly and how fearfully hast thou expressed my case in a storm at sea, if I relapse; They mount up to heaven, and they go down again to the depth!339 My sickness brought me to thee in repentance, and my relapse hath cast me farther from thee. The end of that man shall be worse than the beginning,340 says thy Word, thy Son; my beginning was sickness, punishment for sin: but a worse thing may follow,341 says he also, if I sin again; not only death, which is an end worse than sickness, which was the beginning, but hell, which is a beginning worse than that end. Thy great servant denied thy Son,342 and he denied him again, but all before repentance; here was no relapse. O, if thou hadst ever readmitted Adam into Paradise, how abstinently would he have walked by that tree! And would not the angels that fell have fixed themselves upon thee, if thou hadst once readmitted them to thy sight? They never relapsed; if I do, must not my case be as desperate? Not so desperate; for as thy majesty, so is thy mercy,343 both infinite; and thou, who hast commanded me to pardon my brother seventy-seven times, hast limited thyself to no number. If death were ill in itself, thou wouldst never have raised any dead man to life again, because that man must necessarily die again. If thy mercy in pardoning did so far aggravate a relapse, as that there were no more mercy after it, our case were the worse for that former mercy; for who is not under even a necessity of sinning whilst he is here, if we place this necessity in our own infirmity, and not in thy decree? But I speak not this, O my God, as preparing a way to my relapse out of presumption, but to preclude all accesses of desperation, though out of infirmity I should relapse.

XXIII. Prayer.

O eternal and most gracious God, who, though thou beest ever infinite, yet enlargest thyself by the number of our prayers, and takest our often petitions to thee to be an addition to thy glory and thy greatness, as ever upon all occasions, so now, O my God, I come to thy majesty with two prayers, two supplications. I have meditated upon the jealousy which thou hast of thine own honour, and considered that nothing comes nearer a violating of that honour, nearer to the nature of a scorn to thee, than to sue out thy pardon, and receive the seals of reconciliation to thee, and then return to that sin for which I needed and had thy pardon before. I know that this comes too near to a making thy holy ordinances, thy word, thy sacraments, thy seals, thy grace, instruments of my spiritual fornications. Since therefore thy correction hath brought me to such a participation of thyself (thyself, O my God, cannot be parted), to such an entire possession of thee, as that I durst deliver myself over to thee this minute, if this minute thou wouldst accept my dissolution, preserve me, O my God, the God of constancy and perseverance, in this state, from all relapses into those sins which have induced thy former judgments upon me. But because, by too lamentable experience, I know how slippery my customs of sin have made my ways of sin, I presume to add this petition too, that if my infirmity overtake me, thou forsake me not. Say to my soul, My son, thou hast sinned, do so no more;344 but say also, that though I do, thy spirit of remorse and compunction shall never depart from me. Thy holy apostle, St. Paul, was shipwrecked thrice,345 and yet still saved. Though the rocks and the sands, the heights and the shallows, the prosperity and the adversity of this world, do diversely threaten me, though mine own leaks endanger me, yet, O God, let me never put myself aboard with Hymenæus, nor make shipwreck of faith and a good conscience,346 and then thy long-lived, thy everlasting mercy, will visit me, though that which I most earnestly pray against, should fall upon me, a relapse into those sins which I have truly repented, and thou hast fully pardoned.

331 Psalm lxxviii. 41.

332 Numb. xiv. 22, 23.

333 Josh. xxiii. 12, 13.

334 Deut. xiii. 12-16.

335 Josh. xxii. 11, 12.

336 Josh. xxii. 11, 12.

337 Josh. xxii. 17.

338 Tertullian.

339 Psalm cvii. 26.

340 Matt. xii. 45.

341 John, v. 14.

342 Mark, xiv. 70.

343 Ecclus. ii. 18.

344 Ecclus. i. 21.

345 2 Cor. xi. 25.

346 1 Tim. i. 19.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53