Fourteen Thanksgivings ago in the pages of Christianity Today, Philip Yancey shared a powerful meditation on giving thanks in a time of suffering and fear. Its source was one of Christianity's most complex and compelling poets: John Donne.
Born in England in 1571, "Jack" Donne spent his youth in dissoluteness and rebelliousness, expressed in witty erotic poetry. Turning at last to Christ, Donne came to see himself as a prodigal saved only by grace.
Through a middle age marked by increasing devotion to Christ—but also by poverty and discouragement—he turned his evident poetic skill to the great themes of love, death, and God's mercy. Then in 1615 he became an ordained Anglican priest, whereafter he poured his creative energies more into sermons than poems.
During a near-fatal illness in the year 1623, however, Donne turned again to poetry, completing his most famous volume, the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Each day, the bedridden clergyman heard from his window the church bells of London announcing that the Black Plague—then scourging Europe—had taken more victims. Donne was convinced he, too, had the plague and would soon die (in his famous phrase, the person "for whom the bell tolled" was himself).
It turned out that he did not die quite yet; he recovered, living on to the age of 59 or 60. But in the teeth of his suffering and fear, Donne poured out verses reaching towards God.
These poems speak, as Yancey says, to "the guilt and fear and helpless faith that marked [Donne's] darkest days." They also answer one of the toughest questions we can face, "In the midst of plague times, how can we give thanks?"
Here are the three poems excerpted by Yancey, with his clarifying revisions of Donne's eighteenth-century language:1