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John Donne

Evelyn Simpson, Helen Gardner, and T. S. Healy (eds), John Donne: Selected Prose

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22. From a Sermon Preached to the Nobility1

So therefore prayer is our first entry, for when it is said, Ask and it shall be given, it is also said, Knock and it shall be opened, showing that by prayer our entrance is. And not the entry onely, but the whole house: My house is the house of prayer. Of all the conduits and conveyances of Gods graces to us, none hath been so little subject to cavillations, as this of prayer. The Sacraments have fallen into the hands of flatterers and robbers. Some have attributed too much to them, some detracted. Some have painted them, some have withdrawn their naturall complexion. It hath been disputed, whether they be, how many they be, what they be, and what they do. The preaching of the word hath been made a servant of ambitions, and a shop of many mens new-fangled wares. Almost every meanes between God and man, suffers some adulteratings and disguises: But prayer least: And it hath most wayes and addresses. It may be mentall, for we may thinke prayers. It may be vocall, for we may speake prayers. It may be actuall, for we do prayers. For deeds have voyce; the vices of Sodome did cry, and the Almes of Toby. And if it were proper for St. John, in the first of the Revelations to turne back to see a voyce, it is more likely God will looke down, to heare a worke. So then to do the office of your vocation sincerely, is to pray. How much the favourites of Princes, and great personages labour, that they may be thought to have been in private conference with pg 228the Prince. And though they be forced to wait upon his purposes, and talk of what he will, how fain they would be thought to have solicited their own, or their Dependants businesse. With the Prince of Princes, this every man may doe truly; and the sooner, the more begger he is: for no man is heard here, but in forma pauperis.

Here we may talk long, welcomely, of our own affaires, and be sure to speed. You cannot whisper so low alone in your Chamber, but he heares you, nor sing so lowd in the Congregation, but he distinguishes you. He grudges not to be chidden and disputed with, by Job. The Arrows of the Almighty are in me, and the venim thereof hath drunk up my spirit. Is my strength, the strength of stones, or is my flesh of brasse, &c. Not to be directed and counselled by Jonas: who was angry and sayd; Did not I say, when I was in my Country, thou wouldest deale thus? And when the Lord sayd, Doest thou well to be angry? He replyed, I doe well to be angry to the death. Nor almost to be threatned and neglected by Moses: Doe this, or blot my name out of thy book. It is an Honour to be able to say to servants, Doe this : But to say to God, Domine fac boc, and prevail, is more; And yet more easie. God is replenishingly every where; but most contractedly, and workingly in the Temple. Since then every rectified man, is the temple of the Holy Ghost, when he prays; it is the Holy Ghost it selfe that prays; and what can be denyed, where the Asker gives? He plays with us, as children, shewes us pleasing things, that we may cry for them, and have them. Before we call, he answers, and when we speak, he heares: so Esay 65. 24. Physicians observe some symptomes so violent, that they must neglect the disease for a time, and labour to cure the accident; as burning fevers, in Dysenteries. So in the sinfull consumption of the soule, a stupidity and indisposition to prayer, must first be cured. For, Ye lust, and have not, because ye aske not, Jam. 4. 2. The adulterous Mother of the three great brothers, Gratian, Lombard, and Comestor, being warned by her Confessour, to be sorry for her fact, sayd, she could not, because her fault had so much profited the Church. At least, sayd he, be sorry that thou canst not be sorry. So whosoever thou be, that canst not readily pray, at least pray, that thou mayst pray. For, as in bodily, so in spirituall diseases, it is a desperate state, to be speechlesse.

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Editor’s Note
1 On the text : 'Father forgive them, for they know not what they do' (Luke xxiii. 34).
This undated sermon is extant in two manuscripts as well as in Fifty Sermons. Its simple style, the facts that its marginal headings are in English, that Scripture references are in the body of the text, and that there are few patristic quotations suggest that Donne was preaching to a different type of audience from that which he addressed at Lincoln's Inn, St. Paul's, or Whitehall. 'Is it possible that we have here a solitary example of the sermons which Donne preached every summer during the vacation at his country livings of Sevenoaks or Blunham? When he visited there, we know that he generally stayed with the Earl of Dorset at Knole, or the Earl of Kent at the great house of Blunham. On these occasions the Earl with his wife, family, and part of the retinue of servants would be present at the Sunday morning service. A sermon preached on such an occasion could therefore be included by John Donne junior under the general heading "Preached to the Nobility".'
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