Thanksgiving Day summons up images of plenty, and most of us will eat a healthy, superabundant meal to celebrate our healthy, superabundant lives. But what of those who feel deprived, cursed, or impoverished—how can they give thanks?

I have a friend dying of AIDS: a former pastor who sinned, yes, and now feels more self-condemnation by far than anyone could possibly heap upon him. He recently learned that his wife is infected, too. Apart from miracle, this Thanksgiving will be my friend’s last on Earth. For what should he be thankful?

I thought of my friend as I reread an old favorite, John Donne’s Devotions, written in 1623. There are haunting parallels: Donne lived an early life of lechery and rebellion, and wrote many erotic, even lewd, poems in his youth. He ultimately became a priest in the Church of England, but was struck down in his prime by a severe illness.

He thought it the bubonic plague, or Black Death: scores were dying around him, as London’s church bells dolefully announced each day (the book includes the famous meditation “For whom the belî tolls …”). Donne’s illness, however, was a spotted fever, possibly typhoid, from which he eventually recovered.

While recuperating, Donne wrote a devotional masterpiece that comprises a series of 23 meditations. They record the guilt and fear and helpless faith that marked his darkest days. I have selected three portions that speak to the very question my friend faces now: In the midst of plague times, how can we give thanks? As Donne himself expressed it, “How shall they come to thee whom thou hast nailed to their bed?”

For the sake of clarity, I have changed some words and the order of the passages, but not, I trust, Donne’s essential meaning.

Philip Yancey

O eternal and most gracious God, you have reserved your perfect joy and perfect glory for the future, when we will for the first time know you as we are known. In an instant we will possess, forever, all that can in any way conduce to our happiness. Yet here also, in this world, you grant us earnests of that full payment, glimpses of that stored treasure. Just as we see you through a glass darkly, so also do we receive your goodness by reflection and by your instruments.

Nature reaches out her hand and offers com, and wine, and oil, and milk; but it was you who filled the hand of nature with such bounty. Industry reaches out her hand and gives us fruits of labor for ourselves and our prosperity; but you guided the hands that sowed and watered, and you gave the increase. Friends reach out their hands to support us; but your hand supports that hand we lean on.

Through all these, your instruments, have I received your blessing, O God, but I bless your name most for this, that I have had my portion not only in the hearing, but in the preaching of your gospel.

O most gracious God, on this sickbed I feel under your correction, and I taste of humiliation, but let me taste of consolation, too. Once this scourge has persuaded us that we are nothing of ourselves, may it also persuade us that you are all things unto us.

In a few brief hours you have shown me I am thrown beyond the help of man, so much so that the physician himself had to send for assistants. By that same light, let me see that no vehemence of sickness, no temptation of Satan, no guiltiness of sin, no prison of death—not this first, this sick bed, nor the other prison, the close and dark grave—can remove me from the determined and good purpose that you have sealed concerning me.

I can read my affliction as a correction, or as a mercy, and I confess I know not how to read it. How should I understand this illness? I cannot conclude, though death conclude me. If it is a correction indeed, let me translate it and read it as a mercy; for though it may appear to be a correction, I can have no greater proof of your mercy than to die in you and by that death to be united to him who died for me.

Your Son felt a sadness in his soul unto death, and a reluctance, even fear, as that hour approached. But he had an antidote too; “Yet not my will, but thine be done.” And although you have not made us, your adopted sons, immune from infectious temptations, neither have you delivered us over to them, or withheld your mercies from us.

You, O Lord, who have imprinted medicinal virtues in all creatures, so that even the juices of plants and the venom of snakes may assist in healing, are able to transform this present sickness into everlasting health, and to make my very dejection and faintness of heart a powerful anodyne. When your Son cried out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” you reached out your hand not to heal his sad soul, but to receive his holy soul. Neither did he desire to hold it from you, but surrendered it to you.

I see your hand upon me now, O Lord, and I ask not why it comes or what it intends. Whether you will bid my soul to stay in this body for some time, or meet you this day in paradise, I ask not. Curiosity of mind tempts me to know, but my true healing lies in a silent and absolute obedience to your will, even before I know it. Preserve that obedience, O my God, and that will preserve me to you; that, when you have catechized me with affliction here, I may take a greater degree, and serve you in a higher place, in your kingdom of joy and glory. Amen.

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