John Donne, “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness” [Poetry for Lent]

Poetry for Lent 2.001

Last year during Lent I posted a poem each week that I have found helpful for deeper engagement with Jesus’ journey to the Cross and the significance of Lent. I enjoyed doing that so much last year that I am returning to that practice again this year with another “Poetry for Lent” series. Every Thursday during Lent, I will post a poem.

This week, as we begin the Lenten journey, here is John Donne’s poem “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness.” John Donne was a poet in 16th and 17th-century England who eventually became a priest and dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Donne is often considered the chief example of English metaphysical poetry.

Since I am coming to that holy room,
         Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
         I tune the instrument here at the door,
         And what I must do then, think here before.

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
         Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
         That this is my south-west discovery,
Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,

I joy, that in these straits I see my west;
         For, though their currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
         In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
         So death doth touch the resurrection.

Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
         The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,
         All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,
         Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
         Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
         As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
         May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

So, in his purple wrapp’d, receive me, Lord;
         By these his thorns, give me his other crown;
And as to others’ souls I preach’d thy word,
         Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
“Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.”

Prayer (I) by George Herbert

george-herbertOne of the most powerful pictures of prayer in poetry comes from George Herbert’s stunning poem “Prayer (I).” Herbert (1593-1633) was a poet, preacher, and pastor in the Church of England, serving as the rector of the parish of St. Andrews Church, Lower Bemerton. His poetry, collected in The Temple, is associated with the work of the metaphysical poets of the 17th century, including John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and others.

Eugene Peterson borrowed the title of his book on Revelation, Reversed Thunder, from this poem, and John Piper writes: “For me, the phrase ‘reversed thunder,’ as a description of prayer, is worth more than a hundred explanations.” Here it is:

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.