"Affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it." - John Donne
John Donne’s epigraph sounds like satire. You can almost hear in the Renaissance poet’s words a postmodern ironic laugh. Does he really mean to equate affliction with treasure? In his sonnet, “Batter My Heart,” the speaker asks for what most of us run from, that God would lead him into the furnace and make it hotter:
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
How many times do we pray that God would work such violent intensity against us to change us? Most of us are more like Jeremiah, who, in Lamentations, experiences the type of extremity Donne is praying for (3:7-8):
He has walled me in, and I cannot escape.
He has bound me in heavy chains.
And though I cry and shout,
he has shut out my prayers.
In Donne’s sonnet, the speaker acknowledges his love of the world, “But am betroth'd unto your enemy;” and can somehow beg God to do whatever it takes to bring him to himself, “Divorce me, untie or break that knot again.” While Jeremiah wants no part of the anguish, Donne’s battered heart will be the answer to his prayer.
In his sermon, “Death’s Duel,” Donne quotes Hebrews 12:2, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross.” I always thought this spoke of Jesus looking ahead to the joys of resurrection. Donne, however, thinks otherwise writing, “which was not a joy of his reward after his passion, but a joy that filled him even in the midst of his torments, and arose from him.” Jeremiah didn’t start out with joy in his sorrows, but his great proclamation, “Great is thy faithfulness!” can surely be considered joy, even if it’s welling up from a devastated heart. Donne’s sonnet doesn’t prove fearlessness, but it does prove a joy for God’s will tightly wound around the trials sometimes needed to accomplish it.
Later in his career, Donne became a rector. Knowing his own flaws made him reluctant to take the position. “Batter My Heart” is the poem of someone who knows what it takes to be made new. Fearful or trusting, the speaker understood that something powerful had to happen in order for him to be thrown upon God as his heart desired.
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Whether we can bring ourselves to ask for calamity or not, we have Donne’s words from “Death’s Duel” for our trials. “There we leave you, in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him, that hangs upon the cross.”