Years ago, I served as a dean of students in a seminary college. I was surprised, perhaps because of my own youth, to discover a number of dysfunctions among our students. I was particularly amazed by the abuse of alcohol, which seemed little different from any other college campuses, despite our being a seminary college. Collectively the administration of the seminary had decided to limit student access to drink, a decision that fell to me to implement as dean of students. I probably did that a bit too aggressively. I certainly angered some of the students, who had become accustomed to the seminary providing free beer, and lots of it, but I saw myself as the marshal hired to clean up Dodge City. That’s why I was surprised when, late one night, a student, who had been vocal in his opposition to my policies, knocked on my door.
“Can I talk to you?”
“Of course.” The topic was alcohol, but there was no argument. Instead, in the manner of most men, he rather quickly came to the purpose of his visit. “I need to go into treatment for alcoholism. I realize that I have a problem, but I can’t stop. I can’t keep myself from having a drink tonight, or any other night. I’d like to go for treatment tonight. Please help me.”
It took a few telephone calls, to the rector, his home diocese, and a treatment center, but a few hours later he and I were across town, going through an intake process.
“Resplendent and unfading is wisdom, and she is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her” (Wis 6:12). Sometimes enlightenment comes through an act that is brusque, intrusive, even violent. It’s counter-intuitive, unless you’ve known the same: you’ve come to wisdom through a blow, a set-back, a loss.
To borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, when I “with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste,” when I think of the costly grace that harsh lessons have been, I find solace in a sonnet of the Renaissance poet John Donne, “Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God.”
I’m moved by the desperation of Donne’s sonnet. This is one who no longer asks for the gentleness of God, so weary is he of his shackles; grace for him can only come through the aperture of a wound. This is what Donne wrote:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
The poet is aware that God has been good, that God’s mercies surround him. “For you as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend.” Yet he realizes that, despite himself, he cannot respond as he would want to God. He asks God to set aside gentleness so that change might come. “That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.”
He wants to change, want to ready himself for the Bridegroom, but he is captive to another. “I, like an usurp’d town to another due / Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end.”
It’s not a question of being convinced of sin’s evil, at least not from the right vantage point, but, in the moment of temptation, reason itself, the clarity of thought seems to vanish. “Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, / But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.”
The heart itself is divided. It does want to love the Bridegroom, and yet it cannot set aside other desires. “Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain, / But am betroth’d unto your enemy.”
In the end, the poet realizes that the only way to receive the advent of the Bridegroom is for the groom himself to ready the soul, to set it free from lover loves, to flame its heart with love of God. “Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, / Take me to you, imprison me, for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”
In these last days of the year, as the Church turns eyes toward the end of history, so the soul saddened by sin can do nothing more — or less — than to turn toward tomorrow with longing, with desire, with anticipation. That’ s not a concession to sin, it the premise upon which salvation itself is based. You have to know yourself a sinner to want a savior. You have to have grown weary of base loves to seek the higher.
Dry desire waiting to be satisfied might not seem much a share in God, but, on this side of the grave, it’s the very movement of grace, a battering of the heart.
Terrance W. Klein