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John Donne

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

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11. From a Sermon Preached at Saint Pauls upon Christmasse day. 16211

For let no man thinke that God hath given him so much ease here, as to save him by believing he knoweth not what, or why. Knowledge cannot save us, but we cannot be saved without Knowledge; Faith is not on this side Knowledge, but beyond it; we must necessarily come to Knowledge first, though we must not stay at it, when we are come thither. For, a regenerate Christian, being now a new Creature, hath also a new facultie of Reason: and so believeth the Mysteries of Religion, out of another Reason, than as a meere naturall Man, he believed naturall and morall things. He believeth pg 208them for their own sake, by Faith, though he take Knowledge of them before, by that common Reason, and by those humane Arguments, which worke upon other men, in naturall or morall things. Divers men may walke by the Sea side, and the same beames of the Sunne giving light to them all, one gathereth by the benefit of that light pebles, or speckled shells, for curious vanitie, and another gathers precious Pearle, or medicinall Ambar, by the same light. So the common light of reason illumins us all; but one imployes this light upon the searching of impertinent vanities, another by a better use of the same light, finds out the Mysteries of Religion; and when he hath found them, loves them, not for the lights sake, but for the naturall and true worth of the thing it self. Some men by the benefit of this light of Reason, have found out things profitable and usefull to the whole world; As in particular, Printing, by which the learning of the whole world is communicable to one another, and our minds and our inventions, our wits and compositions may trade and have commerce together, and we may participate of one anothers understandings, as well as of our Clothes, and Wines, and Oyles, and other Merchandize: So by the benefit of this light of reason, they have found out Artillery, by which warres come to quicker ends than heretofore, and the great expence of bloud is avoyded: for the numbers of men slain now, since the invention of Artillery, are much lesse than before, when the sword was the executioner. Others, by the benefit of this light have searched and found the secret corners of gaine, and profit, wheresoever they lie. They have found wherein the weakenesse of another man consisteth, and made their profit of that, by circumventing him in a bargain: They have found his riotous, and wastefull inclination, and they have fed and fomented that disorder, and kept open that leake, to their advantage, and the others ruine. They have found where was the easiest, and most accessible way, to sollicite the Chastitie of a woman, whether Discourse, Musicke, or Presents, and according to that discovery, they have pursued hers, and their own eternall destruction. By the benefit of this light, men see through the darkest, and most impervious places, that are, that is, Courts of Princes, and the greatest Officers in Courts; and can submit themselves to second, and to advance the humours of men pg 209in great place, and so make their profit of the weaknesses which they have discovered in these great men. All the wayes, both of Wisdome, and of Craft lie open to this light, this light of naturall reason: But when they have gone all these wayes by the benefit of this light, they have got no further, than to have walked by a tempestuous Sea, and to have gathered pebles, and speckled cockle shells. Their light seems to be great out of the same reason, that a Torch in a misty night,seemeth greater than in a clear, because it hath kindled and inflamed much thicke and grosse Ayre round about it. So the light and wisedome of worldly men, seemeth great, because he hath kindled an admiration, or an applause in Aiery flatterers, not because it is so in deed.

But, if thou canst take this light of reason that is in thee, this poore snuffe, that is almost out in thee, thy faint and dimme knowledge of God, that riseth out of this light of nature, if thou canst in those embers, those cold ashes, finde out one small coale, and wilt take the paines to kneell downe, and blow that coale with thy devout Prayers, and light thee a little candle, (a desire to reade that Booke, which they call the Scriptures, and the Gospell, and the Word of God;) If with that little candle thou canst creep humbly into low and poore places, if thou canst finde thy Saviour in a Manger, and in his swathing clouts, in his humiliation, and blesse God for that beginning, if thou canst finde him flying into Egypt, and finde in thy selfe a disposition to accompany him in a persecution, in a banishment, if not a bodily banishment, a locall banishment, yet a reall, a spirituall banishment, a banishment from those sinnes, and that sinnefull conversation, which thou hast loved more than thy Parents, or Countrey, or thine owne body, which perchance thou hast consumed, and destroyed with that sinne; if thou canst finde him contenting and containing himselfe at home in his fathers house, and not breaking out, no not about the worke of our salvation, till the due time was come, when it was to be done. And if according to that example, thou canst contain thy selfe in that station and vocation in which God hath planted thee, and not, through a hasty and precipitate zeale, breake out to an imaginary, and intempestive, and unseasonable Reformation, either in Civill or Ecclesiasticall businesse, which belong not to thee; if with this little pg 210poore light, these first degrees of Knowledge and Faith, thou canst follow him into the Garden, and gather up some of the droppes of his precious Bloud and sweat, which he shed for thy soule, 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 ofthat balme, which must cure thy soule; if after all this, thou canst turne this little light inward, and canst thereby discerne where thy diseases, and thy wounds, and thy corruptions are, and canst apply those teares, and blood and balme to them, (all this is, That if thou attend the light of naturall reason, and cherish that, and exalt that, so that that bring thee to a love of the Scriptures, and that love to a beleefe of the truth thereof, and that historicall faith to a faith of application, of appropriation, that as all those things were certainly done, so they were certainly done for thee) thou shalt never envy the lustre and glory of the great lights of worldly men, which are great by the infirmity of others, or by their own opinion, great because others think them great, or because they think themselves so, but thou shalt finde, that howsoever they magnifie their lights, their wit, their learning, their industry, their fortune, their favour, and sacrifice to their owne nets, yet thou shalt see, that thou by thy small light hast gathered Pearle and Amber, and they by their great lights nothing but shels and pebles; they have determined the light of nature, upon the booke of nature, this world, and thou hast carried the light of nature higher, thy naturall reason, and even humane arguments, have brought thee to reade the Scriptures, and to that love, God hath set to the seale of faith. Their light shall set at noone; even in their heighth, some heavy crosse shall cast a damp upon their soule, and cut off all their succours, and devest them of all comforts, and thy light shall grow up, from a faire hope, to a modest assurance and infallibility, that that light shall never go out, nor the works of darknesse, nor the Prince of darknesse ever prevaile upon thee, but as thy light of reason is exalted by faith here, so thy light of faith shall be exalted into the fight of glory, and fruition in the Kingdome of heaven.

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Editor’s Note
1 On the text : 'He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness of that light' (John i. 8).
King James sent his message to the Chapter of St. Paul's requiring them to elect Donne as Dean on 19 November 1621. The Dean was required to preach on Christmas Day, Easter Sunday, and Whitsunday, and could, as he chose, preach on other occasions. This is the first of the splendid series of Christmas sermons that Donne preached in St. Paul's and his first sermon as Dean.
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