Posted by: Catholic of Thule | March 31, 2010

Batter my heart….

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy.
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste except you ravish me.

John Donne

Far be it from me to put forward the life of John Donne as an example for imitation, or to declare the full body of his poetic work, or even the entirety of the religious component thereof, fit for spiritual edification. He chose a very different path from his brother Henry, who died in Newgate prison, where he was incarcerated for having harboured a priest. Whether John’s apostacy from the Catholic Faith resulted from ambition, a heart too faint for continued persecution, or religious principle, however misguided, is a subject I gather might cause some dispute among people far more qualified than myself to make to comment upon. As is the intensity and duration of the spiritual anguish that resulted from this decision. And essentially the answer is known to God alone.

So, why have I chosen a poem by Donne as the subject of my first substantial post on my blog? He is, of course, a brilliant poet, a master of metaphysical conceit even in the traditional poetic sense. And it is, of course, his skill as a poet that has enabled him to express so elegantly, movingly, and dramatically the aspiration to surrender entirely to God. Some of his Holy Sonnets really read like prayers, and perhaps chief among these is Batter my heart, more prosaically known as Holy Sonnet 14.

Of course, one of the main reasons for my choice of this poem for my first serious blog comment is its personal significance to me. Many years ago, when I could not even confess a vaguely Christian faith (even though I guess I was a closet Trinitarian at heart), led a very different life in dramatic opposition to the Gospel, and was consistently and desperately unhappy in this state of affairs, I first resorted to some degree to the sonnet as a kind of prayer. When one consistently rejects a God who very clearly calls, prayer can become a bit of a daunting challenge. I visited Catholic churches sporadically and was moved by novels that dealt in some manner of the Faith, good religious art and poetry through which high and noble aspirations were expressed. Amongst these Donne’s sonnet featured very prominently.

There was far from an instant effect, but I returned to all these, and to this specific poem at various times. Even then I understood that this is not a prayer one prays without a certain amount of trepidation even when the notion of prayer is more of an earnest recitation. The conquest one pleads for is of such a dramatic nature that it is only fit to struggle with certain reservations. And yet, I believe, as my heart to some extent identified with the sentiments, it was one of the many venues of grace on the quest that led me to enter the Church.

However, I must sadly say that even though it is now many years since my reception into the Church and I have had available to me the sacraments for aid in all that time, the poem remains highly relevant. I had not looked it up for a very long time, but certain stanzas would still appear to my mind as speaking of truths concerning my own spiritual state on the one hand, and the aspirations I would dearly like to have, and in times of exuberance think I might have. I suspect I am not the only one to know that the true road to happiness lies in the complete surrender to God, to recognise increasingly one’s own inability to do so, and yet to be wary of truly asking God to make the conquest when we are too weak to apply our wills for long enough to remove the chain from the door to fling it open. We know He stands outside knocking and desiring to enter fully. We know that He has given His very life for our redemption, supplies the grace to seek Him out and allows us to drink deeply of His life-giving grace through the sacraments. In short, he supplies the strength we need. And yet we fail to do our part. Even when we are habitually guarding ourselves against mortal sin, we almost stubbornly cling to venial sin, even the ones that do not necessarily bring that much gratification, but consists mainly of a lack of effort to embrace life as it should be lived in truth and love. Most of us probably never even get to the stage where we have the strength to struggle with imperfections.

And the thing is that we do this even though we know that it dramatically decreases our real quality of life as true life is found in God. The closer we move towards God, the more we life. And the more we are able to become a channel of His grace and life to others. So it would seem proper that instead of remaining in this state, we should plead for Our Lord to break through the door we are not ourselves able to open to let Him in and truly become our Lord.

However, it is also right to recognise that the required process of increasingly dying to oneself is incredibly tough and painful. It is a far cry away from the stereotype of the possibly ‘kind’ (when not mean and slightly deranged in the pursuit of the destruction of gratification for others, of course,), but definitely weak and blind follower of archaic rules and an emasculated guy in flowing pastel-coloured robes who said some neat things on human kindness a couple of thousand years ago. Our high priest is God made flesh. He gave Himself fully for us, suffering the most bitter agonies of soul and flesh in expiation for the sins of the whole world from its beginning until the end; sins, which, incidentally, do not have an expiry date beyond which they miraculously transform into morally neutral or even good acts, but are always and everywhere a negation of goodness and destructive of life. And He did so from no need in Himself, but purely out of love. We can not truly imitate Him in these things. However, we are very much obliged to strive to imitate Him in as far as it is possible for mere human persons, according to the state in life and calling He has for each and every one of us. Where He is, there His servant must be also. We cannot redeem; we are in need of redemption ourselves, but we can become channels of grace. We cannot eradicate our need and begin exclusively to love from mere generosity and abundance, but we can acknowledge our need and allow Him to fill it more and more and thus become more and more generous and selfless in love.

So such a conquest is not only a bold thing to ask of God, but indeed requires great courage from oneself. But for those of us who have more than a sneaking suspicion that we could have applied ourselves more to the work of responding to God’s grace for our spiritual progress this lent, these days are eminently suitable for the directing of such an aspiration towards God, asking Him at the same time for the courage to mean it and to sustain us in that courage. It is not just the right thing to do. It is not ‘just’ what we owe God. It is what we must do in order to have life and have it abundantly. It is what we must do in order truly to be free.

I do hope and pray that before the end of his life, Donne himself had been conquered and enthralled by the very Author of life and reconciled to the Church.

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