Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Blessed Nullification: John Donne on Hearts Warmed and Melted

On February 12, 1629, the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral went to Whitehall, and preached a Lenten sermon before the King.  The Dean was John Donne; the King was Charles I, and the text was Matthew 6:21, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

The sermon is a typical bravura performance.  Read it, if only for the opening image.  Donne talks about the smallest hour-glass, a minute-glass, which would give him more time than he needs to describe a worldly man's treasure; it passes quickly, like the sand. But for a godly man?  Donne says he could not describe that person's treasure if he had
... a secular glass: a glass that would run an age. If the two hemispheres of the world were composed in the form of such a glass, and all the world calcin'd and burnt to ashes, and all the ashes and sands and atoms of the world put into that glass, it would not be enough to tell the godly man what his treasure and the object of his heart is.
Those preaching this week (the Third Sunday in Easter of Year A) may also read the sermon because it contains Donne's single homiletic reference to the disciples encountering Christ en route to Emmaus.

He gets there in the midst of a disquisition on what it means to have "a heart." This is the sort of question, as you can imagine, that is like candy to Donne.  It gives him an opportunity to divide up the meanings of a word, list them and draw together his Biblical and patristic allusions.

So he says: God calls us to have a fixed, a faithful heart; but to this there are many impediments, which he reduces to three:  Cor nullum, or heartlessness; Cor duplex, an irresolute heart; Cor vagum, a wandering heart. The reference to Emmaus comes in the discussion of cor nullum:
... for the fire of God's Spirit may take hold of me and, as the disciples that went with Christ to Emmaus were affected, my heart may burn within me when the Scriptures are opened  -- that is, when God's judgements are denounced against my sin and this heat may overcome my former frigidity and coldness, and overcome my succeeding tepidity and lukewarmness, and may bring my heart to a mollification, to a tenderness, as Job found it: "The Almighty hath troubled me and made my heart soft."
It may be counterintuitive for modern Christians, or at least for Lutherans, to think of Emmaus as a story of judgment against sin; there is nothing about that in the text, and we are more accustomed to focus upon the image of Christ as a loving and supportive companion. But of course the "scriptures" that Jesus opened are our Old Testament, which is never short of judgment.

And when we think of hearts burning within us, many Protestants (at least) recall the story of John Wesley's Aldersgate experience -- when his heart was strangely warmed by hearing Luther's Preface to Romans, and the consequent trust that God "had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."  This is not, really, far from Donne's point -- hearing the Law drives us to the Gospel, which turns our hearts from ice to fire.

Even if that's no help, there is a nice little prayer in the midst of it, which you may find useful.  Having been warmed, even melted, Donne says that he is at last pliable stuff, ductile metal, in the hands of his Maker, at which point he can say:
 Lord, though I be nothing, yet behold I present thee as much as thou hadst to make the whole world of;  O Thou that madst the whole world of nothing, make me that am nothing in mine own eyes a new creature in Christ Jesus.
He calls this self-abnegation, this kenosis if you like, a "blessed nullification." It is all close in tone to his famous sonnet, "Batter my heart, O thou Three-person'd God." But the grammar alone may render it a little easier to use in the pulpit or even -- who knows? -- in one's own devotions.

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