Title: Theology and spirituality: Notes on the mystical christology of John Donne.
Subject(s): DONNE, John -- Criticism & interpretation; THEOLOGY; SPIRITUALITY; JESUS Christ -- Person & offices
Author(s): McIntosh, Mark A.
Source: Anglican Theological Review, Summer95, Vol. 77 Issue 3, p281, 9p
Abstract: Explores the use of the homiletical spirituality of John Donne in the constructive task of Christian theology with particular attention to how Donne's depiction of Jesus enlarge the vision of contemporary christology. Donne's vision of the nature and basis of Christ relationship to humankind; Interaction of spirituality and theology.
AN: 9509270488
ISSN: 0003-3286
Database: TOPICsearch
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Toward the middle of 1630, during an illness which was to prove fatal, John Donne was nonplussed to hear rumors of his own death. Indeed, he wrote to a friend, "a man would almost be content to dye . . . to hear of so much sorrow, and so much good testimony from good men as I (God be blessed for it) did upon the report of my death."[1] Unhappily, not everyone in London was apparently of one mind regarding Donne's illness. Some thought the famous Dean of St. Paul's, the libertine courtier and would-be lawyer, the outrageous poet and late-vocationed priest, was only dissembling illness to be free of his duties as a preacher. This, said Donne,

is an unfriendly, and God knows an ill-grounded interpretation; for I have always been sorrier when I could not preach, than any could be they did not hear me. It hath been my desire, and God may be pleased to grant it, that I might dye in the pulpit; if not that, yet, that I might take my death in the pulpit, that is, dye the sooner by occasion of those labours (X, 32).

Donne's desire to expend his life in preaching Christ tells us that we may read his sermons not only as witty, learned edifications for his hearers but as grave yet passionate reflections of Donne's own encounters with the God who called him to be a preacher. In short, Donne's sermons express his spirituality and his experiential knowledge of the mysteries of Christian faith.

And here is precisely the question I wish to explore in this paper: of what use is the homiletical spirituality of John Donne in the constructive task of Christian theology today? And in particular, how might Donne's depiction of Jesus enlarge the vision of contemporary christology?

My aim is not to develop a protracted methodology for such a project, but rather to offer a brief demonstration of how a spiritual tradition or text might be restored to a significant place in the theological discussion. My assumption may be put very baldly in three points: 1) that lived spirituality and mystical texts were indispensable partners in the formation of Christian theology right through the early Middle Ages, 2) that from that period forward, spirituality and theology developed in increasing isolation from each other, and 3) that what we now think of when we use the words "spirituality" and "theology" are very often only pale, pallid, and domesticated cousins of what are in fact far more vibrant, lively, even flamboyant disciplines.

My hunch is that the separation of these disciplines has been very much to the detriment of each, and the longer the isolation persists the more awkwardness each discipline feels in trying to learn from the other. So I want to be clear about my present proposal. The goal is to draw on spiritual insights, in this case of an earlier era, not as a covert means of escape from the pressing issues of theology today, but precisely so as to infuse contemporary theology with the vigor and vision needed for the tasks at hand.

But how should we begin such an exercise? On the one hand we have ten four hundred-page-or-more volumes of John Donne's sermons and the story: of his life; on the other hand, we have the whole range of christological issues that confront us today. What is the contemporary, theological nexus in which Donne's christologieal insights might be able to fire the most illuminating discussion, like sparks alighting on the intended tinder? It is immediately clear that Donne develops at least three classical themes in the Christian mystical tradition: the birth of Christ in the soul, the imitation of Christ, and the spiritual marriage of Christ and the soul. In theologians such as Maximus the Confessor and Bernard of Clairvaux these spiritual themes are drawn directly into their development of the doctrine of salvation: how does the saving work of Christ come to transform the life of the Christian? But in such figures as Maximus and Bernard, and I think also in Donne, we see an awareness that the way in which human existence comes to participate in the existence of Christ also tells us something vital about Christ's own existence--about what early Christians experienced as the communal or inclusive identity of Christ.

How can this help us in contemporary christological thought? In his characteristically judicious summing up of christology in the modern and post-modern era, John Macquarrie proposes five points which any adequate christology today would need to address very seriously indeed.[2] Macquarrie's fourth point is the relation of Jesus' person and work to every other human being. Earlier eras dealt with this problem by the notion of anhypostasis, the idea that the divine Logos and not a distinct human person is the individuating reality of Jesus' human nature. This means that in Christ, as John Meyendorff once put it, "God assumed humanity in a way which did not exclude any human hypostasis, but which opened to all of them the possibility of restoring their unity in himself."[3] Contemporary christology often distances itself for various reasons from the doctrine of anhypostasis. Yet the laudable desire to ensure an intelligible doctrinal presentation of Jesus' full humanity usually overlooks the valuable functional role anhypostasis once played, namely, ensuring an intrinsic relation between Jesus and every other human being.

In what follows then, I want to suggest how the classical mystical themes of union with Christ, in this case as developed with the unique pungency of John Donne, might serve in constructing a new understanding of Christ's relationship to humankind. First I will consider how Donne envisions the nature and basis of this relationship between Christ and humanity, then what this suggests for a construal of Christ's own person and existence, and finally very briefly what this highly preliminary examination suggests about the interaction of spirituality and theology.

Humanity's Union with Christ

It would be easy enough to overlook much significant material in Donne as so much preacher's rhetoric--painting the pathos of Christ's passion to prod the plodding consciences of his parishioners. While there are certainly preachers who resorted to this in his era, Donne is not among them. Never in Donne is Christ merely used as a handy visual aid or exemplar to point morals. The figure of Christ always appears in Donne's sermons as the source, the very engine of human transformation, and Jesus' story is for Donne never to be treated as a topic for edification but rather as an existential invitation. On one occasion, Donne says that rather than speak further on the subject of the Passion, he would prefer to leave it for the congregation's continual meditation. For "the passion of Christ Jesus is rather an amazement, an astonishment, an exstasie, a consternation, than an instruction" (II, 132). We have a sense here already of how the various states or stages of Christ's existence operate upon the soul. The passion of Christ comes upon the soul, says Donne, not as innocuous instruction but with the power to drive the soul into an ecstatic amazement, and this is the very melting and undoing of the soul which is necessary for its new creation.[4]

But what is the basis for this effect which Christ has on human life? How is it that Christ is able to transform others so profoundly? In the first place we might say that Christ's present relationship to humanity is eschatological; that is, he reaches out to humankind from the coming divine dominion and pours out proleptically on humanity the consummate benefits of his own glory.

Christ Jesus is crowned with glory in Heaven, and he sheds down Coronets upon you; Honour, and Blessings here, that you might be Consanguinei Regis; contract a spiritual Kindred with that King, and be idem Spiritus cure Domino, as inseparable from his Father, as he is himself (III, 224).

Christ bestows spiritual kinship much as a king has the power to designate others as royal cousins. Similarly the very fact of Christ's resurrection is an eschatological tide drawing humanity after him: "The Come is above ground, in the Resurrection of our head, the first fruits of the Dead, Christ Jesus, and that being the first visible steppe of his exaltation, begins our exultation" (X, 213). The word-play on exaltation/exultation highlights the way in which Donne sees Christ's reality as echoing and resounding into the very fibre of human life.

In addition to these eschatological themes, Donne also speaks of Christ's relationship to humanity in classical mystical terms of spiritual marriage (though only rarely, for example in a wedding sermon) and more frequently in terms of Christ's birth in the soul. Rather like Julian of Norwich, Donne insists that the bond or marriage of Christ to the soul is an eternal and irrevocable relationship having its basis in the eternal desire of God:

When my soul was in a strange minority, infinite millions of millions of generations before my soul was a soul, did Christ marry my soul in his eternall Decree. So it was eternall, it had no beginning. Neither doth he interrupt this by giving me any occasion of jealousie by the way, but loves my soul as though there were no other soul, and would have done and suffered all that he did for me alone, if there had been no other name but mine in the Book of life . . . no sin of mine shall divorce or separate me from him (III, 252-3).

In Donne's view, the soul is naturally overcome and transformed by participating--sacramentally and spiritually--in the states of Christ's life precisely because Jesus' historical existence is the appearing in time and space of the soul's eternal lover. Every human soul is created for fulfillment in this relationship.

Turning to the theme of Christ's birth in the soul, we find Donne frequently working with this image, not surprisingly, in his Christmas sermons. How, he asks in 1625, do we come "to feele this Messiah born in our selves?" (VI, 334) Following the traditional divisions of nature, grace, and glory, Donne speaks of how Christ works in the soul according to each of these stages. But he adds that these gifts of Christ are only available to the soul if, as he puts it, "I can finde and feele in my selfe this birth of Christ" (VI, 335). Donne says that neither the mysterious eternal birth of Christ, nor his second birth of Mary, shall mean anything to the soul unless "thou shalt feele the joy of his third birth in thy soul. . . . [For] this day (if thou wilt) [Christ] hath a spirituall birth in thy soul, without which, both his divine, and his humane birth are utterly unprofitable to thee, and thou art no better then if there had never been Son of God in heaven, nor Son of Mary upon earth" (VI, 335).

Donne understands both the eschatological call of Christ to the soul and the eternal bond of Christ with the soul as reaching concrete reality only insofar as the soul develops a new sense of identity, a new understanding of self as permeated by the entire historical existence of Christ. So for example in a Christmas sermon for the following year, 1626, Donne admonishes his congregation to make a good communion that Christ may be born in them, in order that "you shall have a whole Good-Friday, a crucifying and a consummatum est . . . that you shall have a Resurrection and an Ascension" (VII, 280). In Donne's view, the presence of Christ in the soul is not the immobile presence of a laboratory specimen, but the unlimited dynamic of a living personal reality. It is the entirety of this personal reality which comes to inhabit and re-fashion the soul. The Christian is to love Christ, says Donne, in both the glorious and the traumatic moments of Jesus' journey on earth and in his interior presence to the soul:

Love him not onely in spiritual transfigurations, when he visits thy soul with glorious consolations, but even in his inward eclipses, when he withholds his comforts, and withdraws his cheerfulnesse, even when he makes as though he loved not thee, love him. Love him, all the way, to his end, and to thy end too, to the laying down of thy life for him (III, 304).

Here we can see how the interior presence of Christ works within the soul to knit the believer into union with Christ, to weave the detailed pattern of Christ's existence into the fabric of the soul's life. This re-making of the soul according to its intended pattern is accomplished as it is drawn into the crucible of Christ's existence. And the conditions for the possibility of this union of the soul with Christ are, as we have noted, threefold: first, they are eschatological, in that the ultimate goal of human existence is Christ in glory; second, eternal, in that the primordial desire of God for humanity establishes an irrevocable bond between Christ and the soul; and third, existential, in that the historical pattern of Christ's existence becomes--through the Christian moral, sacramental, and spiritual life--the new configuration of the believer's own life.

The Being of Christ

So far we have focused on the manner of Christ's union with the believer. Now we want to consider how the nature of that union, and its role in the process of redemption, opens to us a particular vision of Christ's own being. We are looking at preliminary notes for a christology which emerges in answer to the question: what must Christ be like in order to have this manner of relationship with humanity? We might term it a christology from within, that is, it begins not with reflections on the eternal life of the Logos (from above), nor with critical examination of Jesus' earthly ministry (from below), but rather with an analysis of the transformative activity of Christ within the human soul.[5]

"God," says Donne, "who hath spoken to us by his Son, works upon us by his Son too; he was our Creation, he was our Redemption, he is our Resurrection" (VI, 79). God works upon the soul by means of the Son. This is the center of Donne's christology--that the historical events of Jesus' earthly life are, so to speak, trans-personally and trans-temporally participable, that the name Jesus Christ identifies a human existence which is both particular and inclusive, non-substitutable and yet communal. Donne envisions an interaction between the believer and Christ that is profound and continual. Donne persistently incites his listeners to allow the patterns of Jesus' life to re-structure their own. They must learn "to creep humbly into low and poor places" to find Christ in his humiliations; they are to "finde him flying into Egypt, and finde in thy selfe a disposition to accompany him in a persecution" (III, 360-61). It is not simply an external process of physical or moral imitation that Donne has in mind, but a complete application of Christ's existence to the soul. Donne asks his listeners:

[If] thou canst follow [Christ] into the Garden, and gather up some of the droppes of his precious Bloud and sweat, which he shed for thy soul, if thou canst follow him to Jerusalem, and pick up some of those teares, which he shed upon that City and upon thy soule; if thou canst follow him to the place of his scourging, and to his crucifying, and provide thee some of that balme, which must surely cure thy soul (III, 361).[6]

This sacramental theme of receiving and bathing in the very fluids of Christ's body recurs famously at the end of Donne's last sermon, wherein he concludes his description of the passion with the words:

There wee leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the Crosse, there bath in his teares, there suck at his woundes, and lye down in peace in his grave, till he vouchsafe you a resurrection (X, 248).

Donne emphasizes quite unmistakably here that it is Christ's self-liquefaction that renders him ever more available and accessible to the believer, so that in fact the believer assumes the identity of Christ, sharing even his grave with him. In a striking sermon on the text, "Jesus wept" (of which Donne remarked that there is "not a shorter verse in the Bible, nor a larger text" [IV, 325]), Donne carries this theme of what we might call Christ's "fluidity" to a characteristic extreme as he comes to the Passion:

Here all the body [of Christ] was eye; every pore of his body made an eye by their bloody scourges. And if Christ's looking upon Peter, made Peter weep, shall not his looking upon us here, with teares in his eyes, such teares in his eyes, springs of teares, rivers of teares, seas of teares make us weep too? . . . Here is a Sea free and open to all. Everyone may saile home, home to himselfe (IV, 338-39).

Again we note that it is the fullness of Jesus' historical acts of self-giving which render him, in Donne's view, "free and open to all." Christ's sufferings, so to speak, liquefy him, that is they enlarge the scope of his identity so as to encompass everyone. This Christ-identity, now to be applied and enacted in the believer's life, becomes not an abyss in which the believer's own identity is lost but rather a vast mysterious sea, the crossing of which brings believers home, home to the deepest truth of themselves.

My suggestion in all this is not that John Donne has developed a radically new christology--indeed, the Pauline and Chalcedonian structure of his thought is readily apparent but rather that his pastoral concern for his listeners' spiritual journey has led him to put his finger on a particularly significant feature of Christ's existence, namely that Christ is communicable, even communal in his existence. In other words, Donne sees the most crucially identifying events of Jesus' existence, namely his self-giving in every stage of the narrative, as also being the very same acts by which his existence is fulfilled as inclusive and available for all. What constitutes Jesus as the historical individual Jesus is precisely what makes him universal. In answer to our contemporary question, How is Jesus related to humanity in general, Donne poses to us a counter-question, Have you begun to grasp the true breadth of Christ's own existence?

So Donne envisions the mystery of Christ not so much in terms of divine and human essences having to be thought as one, but in terms of a historical pattern of self-sacrificing compassion, a pattern that identifies the one who enacts such a life as Jesus Christ--including within this reality all those who come to follow Christ. In Donne's reading Christ emerges as the focus of a living historical personal reality, supremely accessible to humankind, and supremely transformative of all who venture into this divine act of communion. We gain some sense of the impact such a christology might have by noting parallel impulses in a more modern writer, Edith Stein, for example. Writing three years before she died at Auschwitz, this philosopher and theologian counsels her fellow Carmelites to realize the potential of Christ's communal existence.

Do you hear the groans of the wounded on the battlefields in the west and the east? You are not a physician and not a nurse and cannot bind up the wounds. You are enclosed in a cell and cannot get to them. Do you hear the anguish of the dying? . . . Look at the Crucified. If you are nuptially bound to him by the faithful observance of your holy vows, your being is precious blood. Bound to him, you are omnipresent as he is. You cannot help here or there like the physician, the nurse, the priest. You can be at all fronts, wherever there is grief, in the power of the cross. Your compassionate love takes you everywhere, this love from the divine heart.[7]

The radical inelusivity of Christ's existence becomes in Stein's thought a crucial theological presupposition. It grounds the possibility for any real and effective solidarity in suffering.

Thinking of Jesus as the center of an ever-widening pattern of divine and human self-giving love may sound disconcerting, and, of course, testing the complementarity of such a conception with conciliar understandings of Christ's person would be the next step. But my goal here has been to suggest what it would be like to take spirituality as a vital partner in the ongoing work of contemporary theology. On this score, let me suggest some points for future reflection.

First, in such a dialogue between spirituality and constructive theology neither discipline need fear that the other might set for it a coercive or obfuscatory agenda. What is required is a patient listening; in this case theology listens to the visionary imagination of the mystical text, attempting to discern a sensibility, an orientation which might bear theological fruit, or at the least pose all the issues in a new and creative way.

Second, theology may find that the customary divisions of theological loci are transcended in worthwhile ways. So in our example doctrines of the person of Christ, of soteriology, and of sanctification are re-connected in the experiential matrix of the believer's encounter with Christ. This is not to be mistaken for mere theological muddle; theologians have long recognized the problems inherent in separating, for example, doctrines of Christ's person and work. Theology that operates in closer proximity to its spiritual matrix is more likely to catch a glimpse of the depth and integrity of the Christian mysteries.

Finally, the interaction of mystical theology and constructive theology is apt to move theology to a more actualist mode of thought, much as has been suggested by liberation and political theologies, in which concrete patterns of activity and personal and communal encounter are seen as the primary medium for theological reflection. For rarely does John Donne define the nature of God or the essence of Christian life, but he never fails to describe the startling liveliness of the divine and human activity in the events concerning Jesus of Nazareth.

  1. John Donne, personal letter otherwise unidentified, in The Sermons of John Donne, Vol. X, Evelyn Simpson and George R. Potter (eds.), (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962), 32. Hereafter all references to Donne will be given parenthetically' in the text, listing the volume and page number in this Simpson and Potter edition.
  2. John Macquarrie, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (London: SCM Press, 1990), 324ff.
  3. John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 1974), 159.
  4. So for example on another occasion Donne speaks of the soul as wax: "Let me chafe [heat] the wax and melt your soules in a bath of his Teares now; Let him set to the great Scale of his effectual Passion, in his blood, then." (IV, 324) The important point here is that Christ's tears and passion are not only that pattern with which the soul is to be imprinted, but are themselves the transformative means by which the soul is fitted for conformity to Christ.
  5. Further on these distinctions see Mcintosh, Christology from Within: Spirituality and the Incarnation in Hans Urs yon Balthasar, forthcoming from the University of Notre Dame Press.
  6. See also the remarkable passage which concludes Donne's last sermon. In this extended meditation on the final events of Christ's life, Donne bids his hearers, "Take in the whole day from the houre that Christ received the passover upon Thursday, unto the houre in which hee dyed the next day. Make this present day that day in thy devotion, and consider what hee did, and remember what you have done" (X, 245). Donne goes on to specify for each moment in the passion story a moral or spiritual entrance into Christ's own life.
  7. Edith Stein, "Elevation of the Cross, September 14, 1939: Ave Crux, Spes Unica!," chap. in The Hidden Life: Hagiographic Essays, Meditations, Spiritual Texts, trans. Waltraut Stein, The Collected Works of Edith Stein, ed. L. Gelbet and M. Linssen, vol. 4 (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies Publications, 1992), 96. Italics original.



Mark A. Mcintosh is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Spirituality, at Loyola University of Chicago.