Friday, December 02, 2011

The Noise of a Fly

John Donne was raised since infancy in a world of intense religiosity. He came from a family of saints and martyrs, and himself wound up the dean of London's cathedral and among the best-known preachers of his age. His Meditations alone stand among history's most thought-provoking considerations of life, death and prayer. Even during his supposedly rakish youth -- the rakishness of which is often wildly overstated -- Donne was a serious lay student of theology, at one point penning a mock-legal brief on the moral questions around suicide.

We may take it for granted that he prayed often and fervently (and, anyone acquainted with his prose may well suspect, in Latin as often as English).

Yet it seems that Donne, like most of the rest of us, found prayer difficult and demanding. He once preached:
I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in, and invite God and his angels thither, and when they are there, neglect God and his angels, for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door.
Can I get an Amen?

That's from Donne's sermon at the funeral of Sir William Cockayne, in 1626. We still remember the moment we first read it, and the shock of recognizing our own distractable nature in the prayer-life of ... well, of our hero. And that was when we realized that it wasn't so much our own distractable nature as human nature.

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