This is my playes last scene, here heavens appoint,
My pilgrimages last mile; and my race,
Idly, yet quickly runne, hath this last pace,
My spans last inch, my minutes latest point,
And gluttonous death, will instantly unjoynt,
My body, and soule, and I shall sleepe a space,
But my'ever-waking part shall see that face,
Whose feare already shakes my every joynt:
Then, as my soule, to'heaven her first seate, takes flight,
And earth-borne body, in the earth shall dwell,
So, fall my sinnes, that all may have their right,
To where they'are bred, and would presse me, to hell.
Impute me righteous, thus purg'd of evill,
For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devill.
~John Donne, Divine Poems, VI
John Donne, master of the pen as he was, was also apparently a Platonist. He, a Christian, prayed a Platonic prayer. And he is certainly not alone. I once met an old, blind Methodist minister who told me, “I have no fear of death.” (And if ever I believed someone who told me that it would be him.) “When this body wears out,” he continued, “I’ll go home to my Lord.” Well, something like that. I think he said it better, but you get the point.
What is the root of this Platonism? How can faithful Christians so devalue the body? The first answer I will offer comes from the perspective of the ninety-four-year-old Rev. Smith. As we age our bodies seem less like friends and more like hindrances. When the mind stays sharp, or in fact sharpens, while the body becomes frail and infirm, how can we not feel some division between soul and body? Well, it’s only a suggestion.
But a second answer comes from John Donne’s similar reflections. Not only does Donne experience the decay of the body, but he dares to provide a theological framework for his experience. All of this Donne provides by meditating on the moment of death. For Donne it is not Plato, but “gluttonous Death” who instantly unjoints soul and body. At the moment of death, soul and body are cleft; the body sleeps while the soul attains the beatific vision. Donne’s Platonism does not come from a lack of respect for Creation or materiality, but rather from a face-to-face encounter with Death. What is it that drives death? In Romans 5 Paul says death came into the world through sin, and all are subject to death because all have sinned. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 15.56 Paul says the sting of death is sin. The witness of James (1.15) tells us that sin, when full-grown brings forth death. Sin is the death-bearer. This is also Donne’s claim. All the hell-born sins must have their rights. The right of sin is death; the exemption of the Christian is the victory over death.
The last four lines of the poem are the most important for our interests. We can hear in Donne’s last lines the plea for redemption from death. “Impute me righteous, thus purg’d of evill / For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devill.” Donne here wrestles with the ontological stain of sin. While the material may not be inherently evil, the world strives against the kingdom. While the body may not be intrinsically bad, the flesh ever strives against the spirit. And the Devil, that elusive figure, more believed in by agnostics than by many educated Christians, never ceases his necrophilic campaign against life.
There is (still) something not right with the world. In spite of the original goodness of Creation, the world, this material world is not as it should be. Death should not reign. Elsewhere, Donne offers us more to ponder:
I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.
(Divine Poems, V)
If Christ came to give life, why do we still die? If death has been swallowed up in victory, why does Death yet reign? Because Sin must have its say. The ontology of the world is not what it once was. The original has been marred by the deleterious death-bearer.
We, and the world, were created good. But were we also created in Sin? No. And Sin is far too deadly a thing to ignore…especially in ontology.