I keep a volume of John Donne close by, and read in it from time to time. I like him as a person and enjoy traveling with him on his spiritual journey, partly because it seems a lot like mine. About thirty years ago I came across Satire 3 in which Donne poetically examined the difficulty of knowing what true religion might be, given the competing, irreconcilable claims of truth coming out of the Reformation. It’s been a favorite ever since, and I often go back to it as a source of reassurance as I work through my own spiritual trek toward truth.
Because it’s been helpful to me, I’ve suggested it to others in my adult classes who have expressed anxiety about not knowing which path to follow in the pursuit of spiritual truth. Their anxiety has often been accompanied by a sense of guilt over doubting what they had been told was true when they were younger. For that matter, they have wondered, can anyone be a trustworthy guide to truth?
It hasn’t always been a good idea because Donne’s English is not our English, and his poetic style is not a comfortable style for today’s readers, especially for adults who haven’t read old English poetry since the high school class they slept through. To get around that, I rewrote a portion of the poem, putting it into contemporary English prose. That brilliant rewrite was lost somewhere in the transition from MSDOS to Windows, and its many reincarnations, to the final move to Apple. It’s probably just as well because it wasn’t that good.
However, not being good has never stopped me, so I have tried again. What follows is my take on the final portion of Satire 3 in which Donne compares the search for spiritual truth to a difficult hike up a hill, often losing sight of the goal, but pressing on just the same. I’ve added a few parenthetic notes to guide adult learners on a few points of interest. With luck, no Donne scholar will ever see it.
Truth (God’s truth) and falsehood are near twins, yet truth is the elder. Work hard to seek her. Believe me this, you are not nothing or worse to seek the best. To adore, or scorn and image, (statues and paintings in church) or protest, may all be bad, but doubt wisely. In a strange way to stand inquiring right is not to stray. To sleep, or run wrong, is.
On a huge hill, cragged and steep, truth stands, and if you will reach her you must take a twisting trail. What the hill makes difficult must be overcome. Strive hard before age, death’s twilight, deprives you of your strength. Do not delay. Do it now. Hard deeds, bodily pains, difficult study, are the work that needs to be done.
The mysteries of truth are like the sun, dazzling, blinding, yet plain to all the eyes. When you have found truth, keep it. Ordinary men are not so ill served by God that he has signed blank charters for kings to kill whom they hate. They are not vicars of Christ but hangmen of fate. Don’t be a fool, a wretch, and let your soul be tied to their laws, a slave to kings’ powers. You will not be tried by them on the last day.
On judgement day will it do you any good to say that Phillip (King of Spain), Gregory (pope), Harry (Henry VIII), or Martin (Luther) taught you this or that? Before God their disputes are mere contraries, maybe equally wrong. Isn’t that what they claim - that each of the others is wrong? Maybe they all are.
So that you may obey kings rightly, know their bounds, their history, their nature, and their names. Know how they’ve changed. Humbling yourself before them is idolatry. A king’s power is like a stream, and those who prosper in its gentle backwaters lose their roots in the greater law of God. When the tyrant rages, alas, they are driven through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost consumed, going into the sea where all is lost. And thus also perish the souls who choose for themselves unjust power, who claim to have it from God. Trust in God himself, not them.
Donne was, I believe, writing as much to himself as to anyone else, and what he had to say remains a powerful corrective to what too many have been told about the Christian journey in faith. It can too easily be pictured as a smooth one in the company of like minded friends. On the road ahead the mountains have been made low, and the valleys raised up. God is our shade by day and light by night. Spiritual food and water sustain our every step, and we never tire. With Jesus as your personal savior, it will be smooth sailing.
If that is not what your journey in faith looks like, you must be doing it wrong. Maybe you have taken the wrong path, are an unbeliever, a reprobate, filled with doubt and uncertainty. Such an image of the Christian journey is popular, but sheer fantasy, and the chastisements that go with it are cruelly unjust.
Donne has spoken as much for Paul, Augustine, Patrick, and Luther as he has for himself. I think he also speaks for every Christian who is serious about seeking God’s truth. The most we can hope for in this life is to get closer to it, and that is enough.