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“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: It tolls for thee.”
These words are familiar to many; their author, John Donne, though less well known, is one of the greatest of English poets. In his own time, he was the best-known preacher in the Church of England. He came to that eminence by a tortuous path. Born into a wealthy and pious Roman Catholic family in 1573, he was educated at both Oxford and Cambridge, and studied law at Lincoln’s Inn. Some time later he conformed to the Established Church and embarked upon a promising political career of service to the State. The revelation of his secret marriage in 1601 to the niece of his employer, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, brought his public career to an end. In 1615, he was persuaded by King James I and others to receive ordination.
Following several brief cures, Donne rose rapidly in popularity as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, from 1622 until his death. He drew great throngs to the Cathedral and to Paul’s Cross, a nearby open-air pulpit. His sermons reﬂect the wide learning of the scholar, the passionate intensity of the poet, and the profound devotion of one struggling in his own life to relate the freedom and demands of the Gospel to the concerns of a common humanity, on every level, and in all its complexities.
In one of his poems, he wrote:
We thinke that Paradise and Calvarie,
Christs Crosse, and Adams tree, stood in one place;
Looke, Lord, and ﬁnde both Adams met in me;
As the ﬁrst Adams sweat surrounds my face
May the last Adams blood my soule embrace.
So, in his purple wrapp’d receive mee Lord,
By these his thornes give me his other Crowne;
And as to others soules I preach’d thy word,
Be this my Text, my Sermon to my owne.
Therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down.
I Almighty God, the root and fountain of all being: Open our eyes to see, with thy servant John Donne, that whatsoever hath any being is a mirror in which we may behold thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
II Almighty God, the root and fountain of all being: Open our eyes to see, with your servant John Donne, that whatever has any being is a mirror in which we may behold you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 15:20-28
Preface of the Epiphany
From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.
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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?
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