The Anglican Cathedral of Second Life

John Donne – poet and priest

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The calendar of the church leads us to remember many Christians of times past. On Thursday we remembered John Donne. He came from a family which suffered much in the years of turmoil as the Church of England gradually emerged. His mother’s family included Sir Thomas More who was executed in 1536 and John’s own brother died in prison having sheltered a Catholic priest. Despite experiencing hardship in his life, John emerged from a time of doubt to become an inspirational priest as well as the writer of large quantities of poetry, some of which is still familiar to us today.

The readings used in the service were Psalm 27:5-11, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, John 5:19-24. The story of John follows:

Today we remember John Donne, poet and priest. There is some dispute about the date of his birth, probably 1571 or 1572. He was born in London, in Bread Street and named after his father. His family was Roman Catholic and very well to do; his father was an ironmonger and also a citizen of London. At that time England was not a very healthy place for Catholics and there was a great deal of anti-Catholic sentiment. John’s father died suddenly in 1576 leaving his mother, Elizabeth to raise the three children.

Elizabeth has an interesting family tree which shows something of the precarious nature of life at that time. Her brother Ellis died in banishment and her brother Jasper died in exile, having previously been imprisoned. Her father died in banishment, as did her maternal grandparents. Elizabeth’s great grandfather died in prison and her great uncle was Sir Thomas More who was executed in 1536.

John and his younger brother Henry were taught at first by Jesuits. When John was 11 the two boys went to Hart Hall at Oxford University. John spent three years there and then another three years at Cambridge University. He later studied law at Lincoln’s Inn and seemed set to be a lawyer.

Tragedy had not finished for this family and in 1593 John’s brother Henry died of a fever while in prison. He had been arrested for sheltering a Catholic priest. This led John to begin to question his faith and seems to have led to a rather hedonistic life for a while. He inherited a fortune and used it on women, books, theatre and travel. He was friendly with Christopher Brooke, a poet, who shared rooms with him in Lincoln’s Inn, and through him, Ben Jonson. He joined a naval expedition to Cadiz in Spain in 1596 and one to the Azores in 1597. When John returned to England in 1598 he seemed to settle down, becoming the private secretary of Thomas Egerton (later Lord Egerton), Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

John’s career began to develop and he became an MP in 1601, sitting in the last Parliament of Queen Elizabeth I. However, things took a nasty turn when he was found to have secretly married Lady Egerton’s 17 year old niece Anne More. John wrote to her father, Sir George More: “Sir, I acknowledge my fault to be so great as I dare scarce offer any other prayer to you in mine own behalf than this, to believe that I neither had dishonest end nor means. But for her whom I tender much more than my fortunes or life (else I would, I might neither joy in this life nor enjoy the next) I humbly beg of you that she may not, to her danger, feel the terror of your sudden anger.”

John was thrown into Fleet Prison for a period along with Samuel and Christopher Brooke who had helped the couple to marry. Losing his position, John spent the next ten years close to poverty while his family grew. The family survived with the help of friends and members of Anne’s family. In 1609 an agreement was reached with Anne’s father and he finally paid her dowry.

Practising law didn’t bring in much money. John added to his income in the period 1604-7 by possibly ghost writing religious pamphlets for Thomas Morton who later became Bishop of Durham – a tentative connection for us as our cathedral is modelled on Durham Cathedral.

In 1610 and 1611 John published two anti-Catholic pieces, making it public that he no longer held to the Catholic faith in which he had been raised. Sir Robert Drury became John’s patron and this allowed him to continue to write as he had done for some years. His poems were published with Sir Robert’s encouragement.

King James had been impressed by John’s argument that Catholics could pledge loyalty to the king and not compromise their loyalty to the pope. He had wanted John to be ordained as an Anglican in 1607 but John refused. The King made it plain that if he wanted to progress in his career John must be ordained and so he relented and was ordained in 1615, becoming Royal Chaplain.

Sadly, on 15 August 1617 John’s wife Anne died, aged only 33, as she gave birth to her twelfth child, who was stillborn. She left seven surviving children. Izaak Walton, John’s biographer said that at that point he was ‘crucified to the world’. John travelled to Germany in 1618 and on his return became Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1621. He remained in that post until he died in 1631. John’s style of preaching, full of symbolism, drama and wit helped to make him a famous preacher. Huge crowds came to hear him, at the Cathedral and at Paul’s Cross which was an outdoor pulpit nearby.

Although not everyone may be an expert on John Donne’s writing, parts of his meditation 17 may be familiar to many. They speak of our mutual belonging:

‘All mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’

One other piece of John Donne’s writing I would like to share is from a sermon he preached in 1620:

‘‘No man ever saw God and lived.’ And yet, I shall not live till I see God; and when I have seen him I shall never die. What have I ever seen in this world, that hath been truly the same thing that it seemed to me? I have seen marble buildings, and a chip, a crust, a plaster, a face of marble hath pulled off, and I see brick-bowels within, I have seen beauty, and a strong breath from another tells me that that complexion is from without, not from a sound constitution within. I have seen the state of princes, and all that is but ceremony. As he that fears God, fears nothing else, so he that sees God, sees everything else: when we shall see God, we shall see all things as they are. We shall be no more deluded with outward appearances: for, when this sight, which we intend here comes, there will be no delusory thing to be seen. All that we have made as though we saw in this world, will be vanished, and I shall see nothing but God, and what is in him; and him I shall see in the flesh.’

John suffered so many things in his life and yet he was able to keep his faith in God, certain of the resurrection when he would see in the flesh what was most important – God himself.

Helene Milena – Lay Pastor


Author: Helene Milena

Teacher, retired counsellor, wife, mother and grandmother.

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