Nailed to a Bed of Pain: Lessons on Life and Death from John Donne

“God never uses a man greatly until he hurts him deeply.” So said A. W. Tozer. Few men can attest to this truth like John Donne, the 17th century English preacher, poet, and Dean of St. Paul’s Church in London from 1621 until his death in 1631. Today Donne is more known for his poetry than for his preaching, but he was a master at both. Oddly, Donne lay in virtual obscurity for the average person until the first quarter of the 20th century when T.S. Eliot’s recommendation that Donne be published anew catapulted him into the status of a major English poet.

Donne’s life was pockmarked with pain. When Donne was 4 years old, his father died suddenly, leaving him and two other siblings to be raised by his mother. At the age of 11, he entered Oxford where he studied for three years. He spent the next three years at Cambridge, but formally graduated from neither as he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy. In 1593, Donne’s younger brother Henry died of a fever in prison after being arrested for giving sanctuary to a Catholic priest. Donne secretly married the daughter of Sir George More in 1601, an unpopular move that landed him in jail! In 1606 he and his wife lived in a small house which he is reported to have referred to as a “hospital” and a “prison.” But for all this, he later became Royal Chaplain and often preached in the King’s court. Donne’s sermonic style was witty, dramatic, and full of elaborate metaphors and turn of phrases, all of which brought him to fame as one of the greatest preachers of his time. His wife died in 1617. Four years later he was appointed Dean of St. Paul’s in London in 1621.

Following the British defeat of the Spanish Armada, England looked to retaliate with raids on Spain. In 1596 England conducted the famous raid on Cadiz, a Spanish port on the Atlantic Coast. Fifty-three merchant vessels and warships were sunk at port, and the town was virtually destroyed. Among the English expedition was a 24-year-old—John Donne. What must have gone through the mind of the young Donne as he heard the booming cannon; the air rancorous with smoke from burning ships; the cries of men clinging for life to any shattered wooden shard in the water; we shall never know for Donne never wrote about it. He must have heard the peel of church bells incessantly ringing the alarm by day and with lesser pace at night ringing out the knell of those who had perished.

Twenty-eight years later, John Donne lay in bed in London, his body racked with pain from what may have been malarial fever brought back from his exploits in Spain many years earlier. He had suffered sickness on and off since that time. Confined to his bed of pain for weeks on end, Donne wrote the little book Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, which was published in 1624 but fell into obscurity not long afterward. Periodically, Donne’s pen would halt as he listened to the ringing of the church bells chiming the sad news that another soul had passed from this life to the next. Then the poet’s pen moved gain, gifting us all with this precious pearl of prose:

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

No, it was not the brilliant mind of Earnest Hemingway that originally conjured the title for his famous book For Whom the Bell Tolls. It was an Anglican preacher nailed to his bed of pain and suffering.

When I was in London a few years back, I toured the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral. One of the monuments was a white marble statue of John Donne. During the last few weeks of his life, as he had done so many times previously, Donne lay on his bed in pain as his life ebbed away. The church employed a carver to design a monument for their Dean. Donne posed for him in the posture of death as a living cadaver, hands folded, eyes closed, and a winding sheet wrapped around him. After his death, it was mounted over his funeral urn. His face wears a serene expression that ironically contrasts with the suffering he endured in life. Donne wrote and preached as much or more about pain and death than any of his contemporaries. But in spite of all he suffered, he was well acquainted with 1 John 3:1-2, as is evidenced by the following words from one of his later sermons:

Our last day is our first day; our Saturday is our Sunday; our eve is
our holy day; our sunsetting is our morning; the day of our death is the first
day of our eternal life. The next day after that … comes that day that shall
show me to myself. Here I never saw God too. … Here I have one faculty
enlightened, and another left in darkness; mine understanding sometimes
cleared, my will at the same time perverted. There I shall be all light, no
shadow upon me; my soul invested in the light of joy, and my body in the
light of glory.[1]


[1] Philip Yancey, “John Donne: As He Lay Dying,” Reality and the Vision, ed. Philip Yancey (Dallas: Word, 1990), 185-86. See also the biography by John Stubbs, John Donne: The Reformed Soul (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006), 445-74.