Funny how we can initially read something with minimal impact on our lives, only to recall the words with great power later. Such was John Donne for me, that Anglican priest whose sensual and spiritual writings mark him chief of the metaphysical poets. During my freshman year of high school we read many of his later religious works. They did not make a huge impression on me at the time; and yet, they were not totally without affect, for something particularly in Holy Sonnet X and Meditation XVII caught my attention enough to burn a few choice phrases in my memory. As a fourteen year old reading his poetry I did not grasp the depth or truth of his words beyond a superficial level, but, out of every great work of classic poetry and literature that we read that year, Donne’s were the only words that I clearly remember now (I know, I know, sad).
What made me think of Donne? I haven’t thought of him since that year of high school English, until recently that is. Something made me recall his words with a potency that was almost breathtaking. Lines from poetry read ten years ago came to mind, and I felt an urge to reread his sonnets. So, I did. And what I found shocked me.
I found truth, a clarity of vision about the Body of Christ, death as merely a stepping stone, and other theological concepts that I had not expected to find. I found so much that I cannot imagine how I missed this gold mine as a teenager: how could I not hear the might of the words and ignore the ominous warning of, “Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee” as a Christian teenager? How could I take as a platitude, “No man is an island, entire of itself?” And how could I not hear the echoes of St. Paul in these words: “Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.” Come to think of it, John Donne’s poetry should have shaken the security out of me, if I had been half as serious or knowledgeable about my faith as I imagined myself to be.
Much of adulthood for me has been discovering and rediscovering wisdom discovered by millions and billions of others before me. History might say to me “Been there, done that, already forgotten lessons you haven’t even learned yet.” And I would have to respond in the affirmative, that yes, I am merely rediscovering what should have been evident to me a long time ago, knowledge that while new to me is old to the world.
Putting away childish things, I seek truth now in the words I read.