This is the first stanza of John Donne’s “Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness”. Donne was an Englishman who lived on the cusp of the 16th and 17th centuries, a man who sacrificed career, reputation and even freedom to marry a woman. He traveled extensively abroad and came home to be a lawyer. A womanizer in his youth, he fathered twelve children with his wife and never remarried after her death; from a family of Catholic martyrs, including Thomas More, he became a member of the Anglican clergy and was named Dean of Saint Paul’s. He is perhaps best remembered today for his poem “No Man is an Island”. He died, some think of stomach cancer, in 1631 at the age of 59.
Donne’s life seems very modern to me, as peripatetic and mouvementé as that of a Baby Boomer. It certainly reminds me of mine. I bumped around for decades among cultures and subcultures, from continent to continent, career to career, from mainstream to margins and back again, before coming to rest here in Jerusalem, with a life that I could never have imagined for its depth and breadth and luxurious comfort of soul. Yes, comfort of soul, even while the body is tired and ill.
Why do these particular five lines speak to me? I am living with cancer, not dying from it at this time, yet the reminder of death is never far from me. I relate to the prospect of my own death in different ways at different times; for now, I am more or less matter of fact about it. Death will come to me, it will come to you, it will come to everyone now living. Fact of life.
Donne’s concept of death in this poem is far from dispassionate. I shall be made thy music – I will become God’s music, the song of the heavenly choir, and now I am in the anteroom, looking in and preparing myself for the moment I enter. I tune the instrument, the part of me that is eternal, here at the door / And what I must do then, I think now before.
With the same firm, gentle and precise touch that once tuned my viola, my guitar, now I tune the instrument of my eternal being and prepare for the moment when I am made music.