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Pre-apprehensions

People of a certain age are tempted to worry about what is to come, and if the worry becomes too great, they may give whatever ailments may come an earlier power over them than they would otherwise have. Its a phenomenon wonderfully described by John Donne in his "Devotions":

O miserable condition of man! which was not imprinted by God, who, as he is immortal himself, had put a coal, a beam of immortality into us, which we might have blown into a flame, but blew it out by our first sin; we beggared ourselves by hearkening after false riches, and infatuated ourselves by hearkening after false knowledge. So that now, we do not only die, but die upon the rack, die by the torment of sickness; nor that only, but are pre-afflicted, super-afflicted with these jealousies and suspicions and apprehensions of sickness, before we can call it a sickness: we are not sure we are ill; one hand asks the other by the pulse, and our eye asks our own urine how we do. O multiplied misery! we die, and cannot enjoy death, because we die in this torment of sickness; we are tormented with sickness, and cannot stay till the torment come, but pre-apprehensions and presages prophesy those torments which induce that death before either come; and our dissolution is conceived in these first changes, quickened in the sickness itself, and born in death, which bears date from these first changes.Is this the honour which man hath by being a little world, that he hath these earthquakes in himself, sudden shakings; these lightnings, sudden flashes; these thunders, sudden noises; these eclipses, sudden offuscations and darkening of his senses; these blazing stars, sudden fiery exhalations; these rivers of blood, sudden red waters? Is he a world to himself only therefore, that he hath enough in himself, not only to destroy and execute himself, but to presage that execution upon himself; to assist the sickness, to antedate the sickness, to make the sickness the more irremediable by sad apprehensions, and, as if he would make a fire the more vehement by sprinkling water upon the coals, so to wrap a hot fever in cold melancholy, lest the fever alone should not destroy fast enough without this contribution, nor perfect the work (which is destruction) except we joined an artificial sickness of our own melancholy, to our natural, our unnatural fever. O perplexed discomposition, O riddling distemper, O miserable condition of man!

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Ah, Rev. Donne at his exaggerating, paradoxical best. Marvelous. It's not *really* funny, though it is. I wonder what a conversation between him and Mr. Shakespeare would sound like. Mr. Racine and Mr. James would would stand by cringing if they heard it, though no doubt Mr. James would admire the sentence structures.

What a wonderful piece! But I'd never tbought of reading Donne as a hypochondriac. As for Mr. James, he would probably find Donne too direct, and rewrite the piece so that it peeked shyly through a veil of allusions and illusions (I've just finished reading the Ambassadors out loud, so late James is much on my mind).

I think that people of a certain age are so encumbered by various medical problems that they have time for little else besides the constant vocation of working to rid themselves of these ailments. Obviously, it is a losing battle.I sometimes think that at that age if I can do even a little something in God's service, I will at least have the satisfaction that I am "cheating death" somewhat.

An old friend used to tell me,"Bob, after you're 50 and you wake up in the mornin gand don't feel anything, --- you're dead."

I rush to explain: I didn't think of Donne here as a hypochondriac. "The "Devotions" were written when Donne was in fact ill in 1623, and this one describes its onset. Each of the devotions is set out in three parts: one describes the human condition, the second offers a spiritual "expostulation" in the form of a debate with God about it, and the third a prayer. The "expostulation" that follows the paragraphs above includes this: "My God, my God, why is not my soul as sensible as my body? Why hath not my soul these apprehensions, these presages, these changes, these antidates, these jealousies, these suspicions of a sin, as well as my body of a sickness? Why is there not always a pulse in my soul to beat at the approach of a temptation to sin? Why are there not always waters in mine eyes, to testify my spiritual sickness?" And the prayer ends thus: "Deliver me, therefore, O my God, from these vain imaginations; that it is an over-curious thing, a dangerous thing, to come to that tenderness, that rawness, that scrupulousness, to fear every concupiscence, every offer of sin, that this suspicious and jealous diligence will turn to an inordinate dejection of spirit, and a diffidence in thy care and providence; but keep me still established, both in a constant assurance, that thou wilt speak to me at the beginning of every such sickness, at the approach of every such sin; and that, if I take knowledge of that voice then, and fly to thee, thou wilt preserve me from failling, or raise me again, when by natural infirmity I am fallen. Do this, O Lord, for his sake, who knows our natural infirmities, for he had them, and knows the weight of our sins, for he paid a dear price for them, thy Son, our Saviour, Christ Jesus. Amen."That last sentence is spectacular!

Yes, I was merely chaffing Donne -- if one can chaff a long-departed Anglican divine and great writer. And I know the devotions, which I much admire, were written from the sickbed. Perhaps, because I'm very much of a "certain age" (well over fifty). I read them too personally. Particularly since I'd been shoveling some heavy wet snow, and later wondering how good an idea that was.

My guess is that fear of loss is much more effective in promoting personal and even social change than the prospect of gain. The sense of crisis, when it doesnt produce paralysis, is often at the root of profound conversion. Counterwishful thinking (believing that what we fear will come about) is more productive than wishful thinking, except for those few who are able to calmly and rationally contemplate alternatives at their leisure.

Mr. DiMauro --Indeed, in old age attending to assorted little physical ills does become the equivalent of a vocation. Be forewarned that when you're very old it will take a lot, lot, lot of time just tending to your body. And I don't even have any life=threatening illness that aren't under control. Just when time is running out, we need more of it. Sigh.

I had a pacemaker installed 4 weeks ago: totally unexpected!Talk about a "come to Jesus" moment!

Jimmy Mac, you "write young"! I trust the auto-ticker will do the trick and not be intrusive. You may get a pass at airport pat-downs and find yourself beating that robot on "Jeopardy!"

A few years before my mother's passing in 1993, my younger brother once asked her, "What's it like to grow old?"Mom, raised in a "proper" setting and always careful with her language, replied, "Growing old is a bitch!"

On growing old, I am reminded of this:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILXyC7z1b8w

David G: "writing young" is a product of the bile ducts, not the age.And if anyone tells you that 70 is the new 50, they are wrong! 70 is 70 is 70.

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.