Death, the Pandemic, and John Donne


Frontispiece from Donne's "Death's Duel"
Almost four hundred years ago, late in another November, the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral London was dealing with a epidemic. With no interactive graphs or websites to visit and reload endlessly, his access to the daily statistics consisted of "plague bills,” posters displayed daily, and the seemingly endless tolling of bells. 

However the Dean himself - John Donne - was also sick, and thought for some days he would die like many others. From his sickbed, he wrote a set of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, reflecting on his own experience and what was happening around him in the public health crisis. It most famous words are these: 
 
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” (Meditation 17) 

These few lines suggest a kind of compassionate solidarity, urging us to a sense of deep connection when others die, or might; but reading further we find his real point is not just compassion for others, but the necessity of attention to the self; for both will die. In the prayer that follows that famous meditation he says to God: 

"I humbly accept thy voice in the sound of this sad and funeral bell. And first, I bless thy glorious name, that in this sound and voice I can hear thy instructions, in another man’s to consider mine own condition; and to know, that this bell which tolls for another, before it come to ring out, may take me in too.” (Meditation 17, Prayer

Donne recovered this time, and so his words were published; death was not his fate that time, but his reflections on it became a rare gift. 

There is a tradition that sermons for the Sundays of Advent concern the “four Last Things,” in Latin quattor novissima, which could more literally be translated the four “latest” things, four things that are on the way, coming straight at us: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. And so yes, today’s cheery theme is Death. 

This may seem even less a popular choice than otherwise. The world, even in a more regular year, starts clutching at the straws of seasonal jollity around now, since the gloom even of a normal winter can indeed oppress. This year more than others there could an understandable tendency to seek distraction, and we may be tempted to provide religious versions of the same. The truth however - or so John Donne would have had us believe - is that the most consoling thing we could do in a world overshadowed by death is to address death squarely, informed by Christian hope. If we live through the pandemic - and some will not - without considering our own death, we are to be pitied.

Death is of course the “last enemy” as St Paul says, the adversary whose grip on our lives is real at all times, but from which we are inclined to look away, because we see death as an insuperable force. We tend to think we can actually avoid or defeat death ourselves by denial, and use the tools of power and wealth to insulate ourselves - convincingly only in the moment, since death always waits. And to entrench our deception, we segment even our society by age and vulnerability so that death does not wait on our doorstep with daily reminders. We toll no bells, but just “celebrate life” as it ends, looking back to reminisce but away from how it ended, and not forward past the door.  

This year however death has broken down the door and marched in. Our choice then is whether to keep looking away, or to face it and see how different life might be, if it is true both that death itself cannot be deferred for all, even while its ultimate defeat is assured. For we have a reason to think that death is not the force it pretends to be.

Donne had gone on to say, of that same tolling bell, "for even that voice, that I must die now, is not the voice of a judge that speaks by way of condemnation, but of a physician that presents health in that. Thou presentest me death as the cure of my disease, not as the exaltation of it” (Med. 18) 

Another extraordinary sickbed composition, the Canticle of the Sun written by Francis of Assisi late in the year 1224, domesticates the great enemy, culminating with the praise of God even in and through death: 

"Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no living man can escape." 

If this possibility that death could be viewed differently - if not quite as good, then at least put in its place by a faith that refuses to see it as sovereign - seems very odd to us, this may be our fault, not Donne’s or Francis'. A different view of death is at the heart of the Gospel. And it all depends on a God whose reality exceeds that of death. 

It is not that death can be rendered good in itself, or in absolute; death must be defeated, or rather the death of death must break into our history in ways that it has not and cannot yet. Masks and vaccines can only prolong life and defer death, they cannot defeat it. And so in this mortal life, death has a place that must be granted. We, like others in our community, rightly wish to affirm life and protect ourselves and others from the ravages of the pandemic, as well as from violence and other untimely causes of death. Yet if all we offered now were a religiously-informed approach to public health, but not faith that death itself can be confronted, and its all-powerful claims refuted, it would be a tragic form of banality. 

Perhaps John Donne’s other most famous piece of religious writing is a "holy sonnet" to this very effect: 

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; 
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow 
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. 

This Advent we will soon enough shift our thoughts to the coming of Christ as a child. The associations of warmth, tenderness and life are all real and true. Yet even Christmas celebrates what Donne and Francis recognized - Christ did not come into the world merely to be material, but to be mortal. We will come to the manger to adore, not because God is with us visiting, or even as material, but as taking on mortality, with us unconditionally in the worst of what we experience as fragile beings. God will die too. God is in the emergency rooms and in the testing centers, among the foolish and the wise, not steering around death but present with us at every end, with the tolling of every bell. 

Donne’s sonnet finishes: 

One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. 

Our Advent hope is not a reason to avert our eyes from the pandemic, or a promise merely to distract us; facing death in the eye and knowing it will claim us too, we are freed from fear of death. There is one who has gone before us, who died and rose again, and who shall change our mortal body that it may be like his glorious body.


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