Saturday, February 21, 2009

‘RAVISH ME OH LORD’: John Donne on Divine Force

Donne's Poem is followed by an Essay on The Spirituality of God's Violence -

HOLY SONNETS – XIV by John Donne

Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.


English poet John Donne’s fourteenth Holy Sonnet speaks to those of us who feel we have been, or need to be, ravished by God:

“Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”

The word ‘ravish’ comes from the Latin word rapere and gave rise to our English words ‘rapid’ and ‘rape.’ It meant to abduct, seize, carry off by force and was most often used to describe the work of pirates and raiding armies. Only later did it develop the sexual connotation we most often associate with it today.

I call this poem the antidote to Job because Donne begs to be Divinely violated, ravished and abducted that he might escape the Hell of his own ego. Job was ravished and wanted to know 'why?' This poem conjures up the image of a forceful intervention, rescuing someone from a dark delusion that has ensnared him/her by a certain enchanting allure that simultaneously is killing him/her. Today we call this addiction, codependence or ‘making a living’. Donne prays to be delivered from whatever keeps an infinite soul trapped in a finite existence. This poem is not for the faint of heart, or those who see spirituality as light and goose-bumpy moments smelling of sandalwood. The images are not ‘spiritually correct' and may shock, as was intended by Donne. Jesus once alluded to something comparable when he said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing…” (Matthew 11:12)

The goal of this poem is a prayer to be made new by whatever means possible as seen in lines 3-4:

That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

The line might make more prosaic sense if you read, “In order that I may rise…overthrow me.” I could and probably should stop there, for that is THE point. But I, like most writers, rarely stop where I should.

This poem captures me at a time in my life where I am genuinely tired of the old ego citadel which once gave so much pleasure and satisfaction, and was simply familiar and comfortable when it was giving me misery and despair. As Donne says in line 5, this ‘usurped town’ or citadel has been captured, or the old lover divorced many times over the years, but I keep going back. That is normal and part of the process in a soul-making universe. Donne recognizes that life on this planet is so arranged that these old selves rarely disappear without a struggle. The resistance and struggle make the soul.

Donne, unlike the protagonist in the Hebrew Book of Job, is asking to be dismantled, violated and broken; he is willing to lose fortune, family, health or whatever it takes to know the Infinite. This is not easy stuff or to be taken lightly. Few of us are in this place.

The aim of this ‘breaking and burning’ in lines 3-4 is that the poet may ‘rise and stand’. Donne brilliantly states the aim of rising and standing anew at the beginning of line 3 as if to let God, and the reader, know he is not a spiritual sadomasochist. The imagery of the incinerated Phoenix comes to mind, or the crucified Christ, or the dismantled Osiris, or the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi, or the humiliated Watergate criminal Chuck Colson – each rising from the heap of debris to become a new Self.

My twenty five year old son was killed in Afghanistan as a soldier on July 13, 2008. I was not ready or willing to be so devastated, assailed, raped and violated by life, let alone ‘God’. Soul does not await my consent. These sorts of tragedies, and some far worse, happen every day somewhere on this planet, and have since the beginning of time. From the first Big Bang that destroyed the initial Cosmic Egg, sending forth the shrapnel of what we now call the Universe, to the bang that exploded in my son’s chest in the Korengal Valley near the border of Pakistan, disintegration has been the emoting force of Creation. Soul-making images a universe where such a process is not odd or abnormal, there is nothing sick, sinful or neurotic about this cosmic process of disintegration and integration followed by disintegration and reintegration. But it is rare and odd for a man to openly ask God to do whatever is necessary to perfect his soul.

I conclude by repeating: The goal of this poem is a prayer to be made new by whatever means possible (lines 3-4). If you would like to read the poem with my line by line interpretive footnotes, please click here ----> Poem with Footnotes

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