One of my favorite hymns to teach young choristers in years past has been Hymn 140 in The Hymnal 1982, and I urge you to take a few minutes to listen to this gorgeous recording. With its plaintive 17th century tune and text by John Donne it was seemingly far beyond their years, and yet somehow always seemed to reach them in that deeper place where children have vast stores of wisdom. It’s also fun to teach them about the play on words in the last line:
Wilt thou forgive that sin, where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive those sins through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more.
Donne (1573-1631) had secretly married Ann More against her family’s wishes, causing his dismissal and years of poverty until he became employable again as an Anglican priest in 1615. “When thou hast Donne, thou hast not Donne, for I have More”. A Hymn to God the Father by John Donne
Ann had died some years before Donne wrote this text, but despite its apparent gloom the text actually conveys a sense of assurance, most clearly in verse 3, while playing on their names once again:
that at my death thy Son shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore.
And having done that, thou hast done, I fear no more.
Donne is quoted as saying: “And, O the power of church-music! that harmony added to this Hymn has raised the affections of my heart, and quickened my graces of zeal and gratitude.”
Might we all, including our children, be so moved by music in the church.
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I’m not sure if the sign is still there, but several years ago when I made a quick visit to Milwaukee I came through airport security to see this:
I don’t know about you, but I’m discombobulated on a regular basis, and the opportunity to pull myself back together after shedding various parts of my attire for airport security was very welcome. In fact, I bet we might all welcome the chance to recombobulate ourselves now and then. Maybe you already have such a place. A yoga class, hiking, a cup of tea and a book. Could church be one of those places to recombobulate? It’s a place, after all, that asks you to temporarily step away from your normal life, where discombobulation is perhaps not an unusual state of being. Church, at its best, is a place to sing together, confront difficult issues from moral and theological perspectives, and experience the beauty of God through all five senses. It is a place, ideally, where you are accepted and loved as you are, and given some tools to help you become better than you are now.
I often imagine what someone, completely new to church, might experience during a service. While singing a hymn with an archaic text such as Donne’s for Hymn 140, I wonder what my unchurched visitor is thinking. Does it seem stuffy and off-putting? A conversation in my head goes something like this:
“Why do you say thee and thou in church still?” she might ask?
“Because there is a power in being connected by language and thought to past generations of Anglicans/Episcopalians, and because we aren’t afraid to create an experience which takes us away from day to day life and helps us glimpse a more orderly world where ideas and emotions are beautifully and carefully expressed,” I might answer.
Wilt thou forgive that sin? “I’m not really comfortable talking about sin. It’s such a harsh word, and makes me feel judged.”
“I get that. Words have power, but one of the things I particularly enjoy is looking under the surface for deeper meanings. There’s no basis, as far as I know, for my idea that “sin” is related to the word sine, which is Latin for “without,” but being without a moral compass is my working definition of sin.”
“But where’s the joy and exuberance that unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit in us?” she would then wonder.
And I could reply, “Well, it is Lent, and expressions of joy and exuberance become muted, so that we can then feel their full effects on Easter. For Episcopalians, it’s almost always about balance.”
Maybe church in general, and Lent in particular, can be times to recombobulate, places to step away from “normal” and reconnect with those deep currents of thought and emotion that keep us…combobulated. I wish that was a real word.
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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.
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5 thoughts on “Undone by Donne”
Another thought-provoking an beautiful blog from Sonya about one of the literary greats. So lucky to receive these each week.
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The Recombobulation area is still there! George and I laugh every time we see it. How’s it going in the North Country? You said that you were coming back to DC from time to time. Have you been? Are you coming? Circle starts registration on Monday. Let me know what you decide to do. All is well here. I am doing a Lenten book group through St. C’s. Parker Palmer’s “Let Your Life Speak. “ Another friend gave it to me when I got sacked at DMA. I really couldn’t get into it then at all. I just annoyed me. I had heard so much about it since, and decided to give it another whirl in an organized group. Let’s just say that it still is not “speaking” to me. Two more sessions to go. Maybe a light bulb will go on. Let’s at least catch up by phone soon. Xoxo – Linda
Your life does speak! It speaks through the kind of friend you are and the family that you’ve created. No need to read a book about that. But glad you’ve found a Lenten discipline that is working for you. I have a trip back scheduled for March 19-20. Have to go to yoga. Maybe we can meet for class and coffee.
We are surrounded by and live in a cacophony of noise, words, competing arguments, epithets hurled in rage. Our electronic signal-to-noise ratio is utterly overwhelmed by all of the regurgitated chatter. And it is so refreshing to smile and quietly consider “recombobulation,” a wonderful concept indeed, whether at church, in choir, or at home. Donne seemingly wrote in a quieter and more reflective age, unburdened and undistracted by modern media. His prayers and poetry are arresting, often grounded in spirituality, and call us back to something fundamental and basic at the core of our being. Donne seems to write sparingly, choosing his words carefully, encouraging us to be still and listen, as do you, dear muse. It is early, and I am the only one up, trying not to wake the dachshunds. Bless you for casting this small stone into the pool, whose ripples extend out and lap at the edges of my thoughts at break of day. Wow! Thanks! Always.