John Donne

Evelyn Simpson, Helen Gardner, and T. S. Healy (eds), Selected Prose

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46. From a Sermon Preached to the King at White-hall, the first Sunday in Lent. [?11 February1627]1


Trace God in thy self, and thou shalt find it so. If thou beest drowzie now, and unattentive, curious or contentious, or quarrelsome now, now God leaves thee in that indisposition, and that is a judgement: But it was his Mercy that brought thee hither before. In every sinne thou hast some remorse, some reluctation, before thou do that sinne; and that pre-reluctation, and pre-remorse was Mercy. If thou hadst no such remorse in thy last sinne, before the sinne, and hast it now, this is the effect of Gods former mercy, and former good purpose upon thee, to let thee see that thou needest the assistance of his Minister, and of his Ordinance, to enable thee to lay hold on Mercy when it is offered thee. Can any calamity fall upon thee, in which thou shalt not be bound to say, I have had blessings in a greater measure than this? If thou have had losses, yet thou hast more, out of which God took that. If all be lost. pg 296perchance thou art but where thou begunst at first, at nothing. If thou begunst upon a good heighth, and beest fallen from that, and fallen low, yet as God prepared a Whale to transport Jonas, before Jonas was cast into the Sea, God prepared thee a holy Patience, before he reduced thee to the exercise of that Patience. If thou couldest apprehend nothing done for thy self, yet all the mercies that God hath exhibited to others, are former mercies to thee, in the Pattern, and in the Seal, and in the Argument thereof: They have had them, therefore thou shalt. All Gods Prophecies, are thy Histories: whatsoever he hath promised others, he hath done in his purpose for thee: And all Gods Histories are thy Prophesies; all that he hath done for others, he owes thee. Hast thou a hardnesse of heart? knowest thou not that Christ hath wept before to entender that hardnesse? hast thou a palenesse of soul, in the apparition of God in fire, and in judgement? knowest thou not, that Christ hath bled before, to give a vigour, and a vegetation, and a verdure to that palenesse? is thy sinne Actuall sinne? knowest thou not, that there is a Lamb bleeding before upon the Altar, to expiate that? Is thy terrour from thy inherence, and encombrance of Originall sinne? knowest thou not, that the effect of Baptism hath blunted the sting of that sinne before? art thou full of sores, putrid and ulcerous sores? full of wounds, through and through piercing wounds? full of diseases, namelesse and complicate diseases? knowest thou not that there is a holy Charm, a blessed Incantation, by which thou art, though not invulnerable, yet invulnerable unto death, wrapt up in the eternall Decree of thine Election? that's thy pillar, the assurance of thine Election: If thou shake that, if thou cast down that Pillar, if thou distrust thine Election, with Samson, who pulled down pillars in his blindnesse, in thy blindnesse thou destroyest thy self. Begin where thou wilt at any Act in thy self, at any act in God, yet there was mercy before that, for his mercy is eternall, eternall even towards thee. I could easily think that that, that past between God and Moses in their long conversation; that that, that past between Christ and Moses in his transfiguration; that that, that past between Saint Paul and the Court of Heaven in his extasie was instruction and manifestation on one part, and admiration and application on the other part of the mercy of God. Earth cannot receive, Heaven pg 297cannot give such another universall soul to all: all persons, all actions, as Mercy. And were I the childe of this Text, that were to live a hundred yeares, I would ask no other marrow to my bones, no other wine to my heart, no other light to mine eyes, no other art to my understanding, no other eloquence to my tongue, than the power of apprehending for my self, and the power of deriving and conveying upon others by my Ministery, the Mercy, the early Mercy, the everlasting Mercy of yours, and my God.


How men do bear it, we know not; what passes between God and those men, upon whom the curse of God lieth, in their dark borrours at midnight, they would not have us know, because it is part of their curse, to envy God that glory. But we may consider in some part the insupportablenesse of that weight, if we proceed but so farre, as to accomodate to God, that which is ordinarily said of naturall things, Corruptio optimi pessima; when the best things change their nature, they become worst. When God, who is all sweetnesse, shall have learned frowardnesse from us, as David speaks; and being all rectitude, shall have learned perversenesse and crookednesse from us, as Moses speaks; and being all providence, shall have learned negligence from us: when God who is all Blessing, hath learned to curse of us, and being of himself spread as an universall Hony-combe over All, takes in an impression, a tincture, an infusion of gall from us, what extraction of Wormwood can be so bitter, what exaltation of fire can be so raging, what multiplying of talents can be so heavy, what stiffnesse of destiny can be so inevitable, what confection of gnawing worms, of gnashing teeth, of howling cries, of scalding brimstone, of palpable darknesse, can be so, so insupportable, so inexpressible, so in-imaginable, as the curse and malediction of God? And therefore let not us by our works provoke, nor by our words teach God to curse. Lest if with the same tongue that we blesse God, we curse Men; that is, seem to be in Charity in our Prayers here, and carry a ranckerous heart, and venemous tongue home with us God come to say (and Gods saying is doing) As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him; as he clothed himself withcursing, as with a garment, so let it be as a girdle, wherewith he is girded pg 298continually: When a man curses out of Levity, and makes a loose habit of that sinne, God shall so gird it to him, as he shall never devest it. The Devils grammar is Applicare Activa Passivis, to apply Actives to Passives; where he sees an inclination, to subminister a temptation; where he seeth a froward choler, to blow in a curse. And Gods grammar is to change Actives into Passives: where a man delights in cursing, to make that man accursed. And if God do this to them who do but curse men, will he do lesse to them, who blaspheme himself? where man wears out Æternum suum, (as Saint Gregory speaketh) his own eternity, his own hundred yeares; that is, his whole life, in cursing and blaspheming, God shall also extend his curse, In æterno suo, in his eternity, that is, for ever. Which is that, that falls to the bottome, as the heaviest of all, and is our last consideration; that all the rest, that there is a curse deposited in the Scriptures, denounced by the Church, avowed by God, reduced to execution, and that insupportable in this life, is infinitely aggravated by this, that he shall be accursed for ever.

This is the Anathema Maran-atha, accursed till the Lord come; and when the Lord cometh, he cometh not to reverse, nor to alleviate, but to ratifie and aggravate that curse. As soon as Christ curst the fig-tree, it withered, and it never recovered: for saith that Gospell, he curst it In æternum, for ever. In the course of our sinne, the Holy Ghost hath put here a number of yeares, a hundred yeares: We sinne long, as long as we can, but yet sinne hath an end. But in this curse of God in the Text, there is no number; it is an indefinite future; He shall be accursed: A mile of cyphers or figures, added to the former hundred, would not make up a minute of this eternity. Men have calculated how many particular graines of sand, would fill up all the vast space between the Earth and the Firmament: and we find, that a few lines of cyphers will designe and expresse that number. But if every grain of sand were that number, and multiplied again by that number, yet all that, all that inexpressible, inconsiderable number, made not up one minute of this eternity; neither would this curse, be a minute the shorter for having been indured so many Generations, as there were grains of sand in that number. Our Esse, our Being, is from Gods saying, Dixit & facti, God spoke, and we were made: our Bene esse, our Well-being, is from Gods saying too; pg 299Bene-dicit God blesses us, in speaking gratiously to us. Even our Ill-being, our condemnation is from Gods saying also: for Malediction is Damnation. So far God hath gone with us that way, asthat our Being, our well-being, our ill-being is from his saying: But God shall never come to a Non esse, God shall never say to us, Be nothing, God shall never succour us with an annihilation, nor give us the ease of resolving into nothing, for this curse flowes on into an everlasting future, He shall be accurst, he shall be so for ever. In a true sense we may say, that Gods fore-knowledge growes lesse and lesse every day; for his fore-knowledge is of future things, and many things which were future heretofore are past, or present now; and therefore cannot fall under his fore-knowledge: His fore-knowledge in that sense, growes lesse, and decaieth. But his eternity decayeth in no sense; and as long as his eternity lasts, as long as God is God, God shall never see that soul, whom he hath accurst, delivered from that curse, or eased in it.

But we are now in the work of an houre, and no more. If there be a minute of sand left, (There is not) If there be a minute of patience left, heare me say, This minute that is left, is that eternitie which we speake of; upon this minute dependeth that eternity: And this minute, God is in this Congregation, and puts his eare to every one of your hearts, and hearkens what you will bid him say to your selves: whether he shall blesse you for your acceptation, or curse you for your refusall of him this minute: for this minute makes up your Century, your hundred yeares, your eternity, because it may be your last minute. We need not call that a Fable, but a Parable, where we heare, That a Mother to still her froward childe told him, she would cast him to the Wolf, the Wolf should have him; and the Wolf which was at the doore, and within hearing, waited, and hoped he should have the childe indeed: but the childe being still'd, and the Mother pleased, then she saith, so shall we kill the Wolf, the Wolf shall have none of my childe, and then the Wolf stole away. No metaphor, no comparison is too high, none too low, too triviall, to imprint in you a sense of Gods everlasting goodnesse towards you. God bids your Mother the Church, and us her Servants for your Souls, to denounce his judgements upon your sinnes, and we do it; and the executioner Satan, beleeves us, before you beleeve us, and pg 300is ready on his part. Be you also ready on your part, to lay hold upon those conditions, which are annext to all Gods maledictions, Repentance of former, preclusion against future sinnes, and we shall be alwayes ready, on our part to assist you with the Power of our Intercession, to deliver you with the Keies of our Absolution, and to establish you with the seales of Reconcilation, and so disappoint that Wolf, that roaring Lion, that seeks whom he may devour: Go in Peace, and be this your Peace, to know this, Maledictus qui pendet in Cruce, God hath laid the whole curse belonging to us upon him, that hangs upon the Crosse; But Benedictus qui pendet in pendentem; To all them that hang upon him, that hangeth there, God offereth now, all those blessings, which he that hangeth there hath purchased with the inestimable price of his Incorruptible blood; And to this glorious Sonne of God, who hath suffered all this, and to the most Almighty Father, who hath done all this, and to the blessed Spirit of God, who offereth now to apply all this, be ascribed by us, and by the whole Church, All power, praise, might, majesty, glory, and dominion, now and for evermore Amen.

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Editor’s Note
1 On the text: 'For the child shall die a hundred years old; but the sinner, being a hundred years old, shall be accursed' (Isa. lxv.20).
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