John Donne: Expostulation


John Donne

MY God, my God, the God of order, but yet not of ambition, who assignest place to every one, but not contention for place, when shall it be thy pleasure to put an end to all these quarrels for spiritual precedences? When shall men leave their uncharitable disputations, which is to take place, faith or repentance, and which, when we consider faith and works? The head and the hand too are required to a perfect natural man; counsel and action too, to a perfect civil man; faith and works too, to him that is perfectly spiritual.

But because it is easily said, I believe, and because it doth not easily lie in proof, nor is easily demonstrable by any evidence taken from my heart (for who sees that, who searches those rolls?) whether I do believe or no, is it not therefore, O my God, that thou dost so frequently, so earnestly, refer us to the hand, to the observation of actions? There is a little suspicion, a little imputation laid upon over-tedious and dilatory counsels. Many good occasions slip away in long consultations; and it may be a degree of sloth, to be too long in mending nets, though that must be done. “He that observeth the wind shall not sow, and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap”; [Eccles. 11:4] that is, he that is too dilatory, too superstitious in these observations, and studies but the excuse of his own idleness in them; but that which the same wise and royal servant of thine says in another place, all accept, and ask no comment upon it, “He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand, but the hand of the diligent maketh rich,” [Prov. 10:4] all evil imputed to the absence, all good attributed to the presence of the hand.

I know, my God (and I bless thy name for knowing it, for all good knowledge is from thee), that thou considerest the heart; but thou takest not off thine eye till thou come to the hand. Nay, my God, doth not thy Spirit intimate that thou beginnest where we begin (at least, that thou allowest us to begin there), when thou orderest thine own answer to thine own question, “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? thus, He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart?” [Psalm 24:3] Dost thou not (at least) send us first to the hand?

And is not the work of their hands that declaration of their holy zeal, in the present execution of manifest idolators, called a consecration of themselves, [Exod. 32:29] by thy Holy Spirit? Their hands are called all themselves; for even counsel itself goes under that name in thy word, who knowest best how to give right names: because the counsel of the priests assisted David, [1 Sam. 22:17] Saul says the hand of the priest is with David. And that which is often said by Moses, is very often repeated by thy other prophets, “These and these things the Lord spake,” [Lev. 8:36] and “the Lord said,” and “the Lord commanded,” not by the counsels, not by the voice, but by the “hand of Moses,” and by the “hand of the prophets.

Evermore we are referred for our evidence of others, and of ourselves, to the hand, to action, to works. There is something before it, believing; and there is something after it, suffering; but in the most eminent, and obvious, and conspicuous place stands doing. Why then, O my God, my blessed God, in the ways of my spiritual strength, come I so slow to action? I was whipped by thy rod, before I came to consultation, to consider my state; and shall I go no farther?

As he that would describe a circle in paper, if he have brought that circle within one inch of finishing, yet if he remove his compass he cannot make it up a perfect circle except he fall to work again, to find out the same centre, so, though setting that foot of my compass upon thee, I have gone so far as to the consideration of myself, yet if I depart from thee, my centre, all is imperfect. This proceeding to action, therefore, is a returning to thee, and a working upon myself by thy physic, by thy purgative physic, a free and entire evacuation of my soul by confession. The working of purgative physic is violent and contrary to nature.

O Lord, I decline not this potion of confession, however it may be contrary to a natural man. To take physic, and not according to the right method, is dangerous. [10] O Lord, I decline not that method in this physic, in things that burthen my conscience, to make my confession to him, into whose hands thou hast put the power of absolution. I know that "physic may be made so pleasant as that it may easily be taken; but not so pleasant as the virtue and nature of the medicine be extinguished." [11] I know I am not submitted to such a confession as is a rack and torture of the conscience; but I know I am not exempt from all. If it were merely problematical, left merely indifferent whether we should take this physic, use this confession, or no, a great physician acknowledges this to have been his practice, to minister to many things which he was not sure would do good, but never any other thing but such as he was sure would do no harm. [12] The use of this spiritual physic can certainly do no harm; and the church hath always thought that it might, and, doubtless, many humble souls have found, that it hath done them good.

I will therefore take the cup of salvation, and call upon thy name [Psalm 116:13].” I will find this cup of compunction as full as I have formerly filled the cups of worldly confections, that so I may escape the cup of malediction and irrecoverable destruction that depends upon that. And since thy blessed and glorious Son, being offered, in the way to his execution, a cup of stupefaction, [Mark 15:23] to take away the sense of his pain (a charity afforded to condemned persons ordinarily in those places and times), refused that ease, and embraced the whole torment, I take not this cup, but this vessel of mine own sins into my contemplation, and I pour them out here according to the motions of thy Holy Spirit, and any where according to the ordinances of thy holy church.

[10] Galen.

[11] Galen.

[12] Galen.