Sunday, March 31, 2013

John Donne and the Preaching Women

Donne posed in his winding sheet

In 1630, Easter fell -- as it does this year -- on 31 March.  So it was that, one year to the day before his death, John Donne mounted the pulpit at St. Paul's Cathedral to preach.

Donne preached on Matthew 28:6 -- He is not here; he is risen.  Come and see the place where he lay.  The sermon, which runs to 24 pages the standard edition, must have taken more than an hour to preach.  It is loaded with Donne's customary intellectual theatrics, his rhetorical devices, his references to Fathers and Reformers, his bits of theological speculation.  But, for all of that, it is one of his more accessible sermons -- not easy reading for us today, but not hard, either.  It is well worth the effort.

He begins with the myrrh-bearers, the women at the tomb, and the angels who greeted them:

... Angelicall women and Euangelicall Angels: Angels made Euangelists to preach the Gospell  of the Resurrection, and women made Angels so as Iohn Baptist is called an Angel, and so as the seven bishops are called Angels:  that is, Instructors of the Church and ... messengers, publishers of the greatest mysteries of our religion

Johanna, wife of Chusa, by Egino Weinert
He digs right into to what would have seemed a paradox in those days:  women as preachers. He begins by rebutting many of the foolish ideas about women spread by the "petulancy" of men (such as that women have no souls, or are not created in the image of God), and sings at length the praises of good women, both in Scripture and in history.

Concerning Mary Magdalene, he wonders aloud why tradition has accused her of prostitution, when the Bible does not; of Chusa's wife Johanna, he calls her a "Pope Joan," superior to Peter.  Above all, he praises the women for their devotion:
Beloved, true devotion is a serious, a sedulous, an impatient thing.  He that said in the Gospell "I fast twice a week," was but a Pharisee; he that can reckon his devout actions is no better.  He that can tell how often he hath thought upon God today hath not thought upon him often enough.   
It is S. Augustine's holy circle: to pray that we may heare sermons profitably, and to heare sermons that we learn to pray acceptably.  Devotion is no Marginall note, no interlineary glosse, no parenthesis that may be left out; it is no occasionall thing, no conditionall thing --  "I will goe if  I like the preacher, if the place, if the company, if the weather" -- but it is of the body of the text, and layes upon us an obligation of fervour and of continuance.  This we have in this example of these not only Euangelicall but Euangelisticall (preaching) women ...
There's much more to this sermon, which could easily be mined by students of Renaissance sexual polemic.  People often make the mistake of separating "Jack" Donne from "Dean" Donne, the young rake from the old priest.  Donne encouraged this, but we should not be fooled.  His earliest writing was about sex and religion; so too was his latest.  From the beginning to the end, Donne was fascinated by women and by God.

He was also fascinated by death, and there is plenty of that in his Easter sermon.  Winding-sheets make their almost inevitable appearance, and so do church-bells:
There is our comfort, collected from this surrexit, "he is risen," equivalent to the discomfort of the non est hic, "he is not here," that this his rising declares him to be the Son of God,  who therefore can, and will, and to be that Jesus, an actuall redeemer, and therefore hath already raised us.   
To what?  To that renovation, to that new creation, which is so excellently expressed by Severianus:  ... "the whole frame and course of nature is changed" ... the grave now, since Christ's Resurrection and ours in him, does not bury the dead man, but death himself.   
My Bell tolls for death and my Bell rings out for death and not for me that dye;  for I live, even in death; but death dies in me, and hath no more power over me.
There is much more to this sermon; our preacher is not -- ahem -- done yet.  He has a story about  a West Indian king, some gentle poking of fun at both transubstantiation and ubiquity, citations from Luther on marriage and Calvin on several things, and for all we know hidden references to alchemy and politics.

But let's leave it here for now, as we admire and try to emulate the sedulous devotion of the preaching women, and remind ourselves and those around us of the promise implicit in Easter Sunday:  the new creation, by which we live even in death, and death has no more power over us.


mark said...

Good one . . . but, "Donne in his winding sheet" was too easy :))

Father Anonymous said...

Oops! Thanks, Paul.