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Poet-Pastor John Donne and How to Express Suffering

I’m reading a fascinating set of companion books based on the original “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel” by poet and pastor John Donne (1572-1631). Because most readers  struggle with Donne’s Elizabethan English, my friend and writer Philip Yancey wrote a fascinating modern translation of the book titled, “A Companion in Crisis.” 

It was appropriate that I picked this up during the pandemic because John Donne originally wrote the devotions in 1623, during an outbreak of the Black Death in London. The Black Death swept through England three times during Donne’s lifetime, and when he became sick himself, he started writing.

He had struggled much of his life, from a father-in-law who didn’t approve of his marriage and tried to destroy his career, to the death of children, and finally his wife. During that time he earned a reputation as an eloquent preacher, he was appointed to become the vicar of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and 160 of his sermons have survived. 

One of the meditations, Meditation XVII, contains the well known phrases “No man is an Iland” (often modernized as “No man is an island”) and “…for whom the bell tolls” (which Ernest Hemingway used as the title of his famous novel).

I start by reading Philip Yancey’s version every morning, and follow up with Donne’s original version of the same devotion for the beauty of the language.

In a world where so many consider the slightest offense an outrage, where a victim mentality pervades the culture, it’s refreshing to read how great men and women of God throughout history dealt with the greatest challenges one can imagine.

I’d encourage you to read through both versions. The original takes a little work, but using Yancey’s update as a guide, you’ll be well rewarded.

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