April 21, 2014


I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as He shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.1

I am not certain how I prayed until I met John Donne. I say “met” because it seemed he spoke to me—the central, spiritual part of me—as forcefully as if we had actually encountered each other on some London street, and not in the pages of a Penguin paperback collection, separated by 350 years of silence.31 1 1 1

I’m sure I prayed as children everywhere are taught to pray—“in Jesus’ name,” “for Mommy and for Daddy,” and, if the wind was right and sibling conflict at an ebb, for “Davie” and for “Ronnie,” too. There were “the missionaries and colporteurs across the seas,” my inconsistent piano practicing that led to moments of sheer terror on the nights before recitals, and my long-running dread of all things mathematical. Sins loomed titanically on the margins of my world: the unkind cut I said to a classmate; the disrespect I one time uttered to a teacher. My conscience was so tender I found myself one smitten day apologizing to the cat.

But then I met this man who died before my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather—also John—was conceived, and knew at once that he would teach me how to pray. John Donne (1572-1631), the celebrated preacher/poet of the age of Shakespeare, addressed his God with candid pleas and bold requests that voiced the inarticulate yearnings of my adolescent soul:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.2

Soon enough, I was reciting bits of Donne on long walks home ’cross muddy fields; when clouds as dark and brooding as my fears spit snow and ice along the way; when, in the temple of my heart, I knelt to offer Christ as much as I could give.

And when at 21, I sat—first time—beneath the pulpit in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, I whispered words the former preacher of the old cathedral that once stood upon that spot had taught me how to pray:

And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal

Of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal.3

Donne became my prayer partner in all those moments when the heart wants more of God, or when, in crisis or in sin, I did not have enough. I prayed his words on interstates when hours of white-lined boredom made me long for focused thought. I prayed his words when, in the casket of my first magnetic resonance imager (MRI), I discovered claustrophobia. I prayed his words when sins more serious than anything I ever said to the cat beset my heart and made me plead for top-to-bottom, stem-to-stern renewal.

Donne gave me what the real poets always give—those words beyond our everyday vocabulary that spin or soar or crawl or weep—and move us past the too-drab confines we inhabit. Somehow, the poet “gets it”—gets it definitively right in just the way we wish we could have said or written it. And who cares if the lines all rhyme, or if the meter moves to rhythms unimagined in all the doggerel that sets the pack a-baying? The poet—my John Donne, your Eliot, or Dickinson, or e e cummings—writes for an audience of one: most often that unhurried heart that wants to see more clearly, hear more carefully, pray more fervently.

Someday, if faults may still be shared in heaven, I will ask Donne’s pardon for the ways I have rewritten him in 40 years of making what he wrote my own. As grace invariably does, he’ll smile, I sense, and nod his head in agreement with a prayer he fully understands:

Un-Donne, I fear that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as He shines now, and heretofore;
And having all Donne, Thou hast Knott, too;
We fear no more.

  1. John Donne, “A Hymn to God the Father,” Poems of John Donne, ed. E. K. Chambers (London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896), Vol. I, p. 213.
  2. John Donne, “Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God,” Poems of John Donne, Vol. I, p. 165.
  3. John Donne, “I Am a Little World Made Cunningly,” Poems of John Donne, Vol. I, p. 159.