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"A pillow to rest thy soul"

"So then there is a Viatory, a preparatory, an initiatory, an inchoative blessedness in this life. What is that? All agree in this definition, that blessedness is that in quo quiescit animus, in which the mind, the heart, the desire of man hath settled and rested, in which it found a Centrical reposedness, an acquiescence, a contentment. Not that which might satisfy any particular man; for, so the object would be infinitely various; but that beyond which no man could propose any thing. And is there such a blessednesse in this life? There is. Fecisti nos Domine ad te, & inquietum est Cor nostrum, donec quiescat in te; Lord, thou hast made us for thy self, and our heart cannot rest till it get to thee. But can we come to God here? We cannot. Wheres then our viatory, our preparatory, our initiatory, our inchoative blessedness? Beloved, though we cannot come to God here, here God comes to us; Here, in the prayers of the Congregation God comes to us; here in his Ordinance of Preaching, God delivers himself to us; here in the administration of his Sacraments, he seals, ratifies, confirms all unto us; And to rest in these his seals and means of reconciliation to him, this is not to be scandalised, not to be offended in him; and, not to be offended in him, not to suspect him or those means which he hath ordained, this is our viatory, our preparatory, our initiatory and inchoative Blessednesse, beyond which, nothing can be proposed in this life."And therefore, as the Needle of a Sea-compass, though it shake long, yet will rest at last, and though it do not look directly, exactly to the North Pole, but have some variation, yet, for all that variation, will rest, so, though thy heart have some variations, some deviations, aberrations from that direct point upon which it should be bent, which is an absolute conformity of thy will to the will of God, yet, though thou lack something of that, afford thy soul rest; settle thy soul in such an infallibility, as this present condition can admit, and believe, that God receives glory as well in thy Repentance as in thy Innocence, and that the mercy of God in Christ, is as good a pillow to rest thy soul upon after a sin, as the grace of God in Christ is a shield and protection for thy soul before. In a word, this is our viatory, our preparatory, our initiatory, and inchoative blessedness, beyond which there can be no blessedness proposed here, first to receive a satisfaction, an acquiescence, that there are certain and constant means ordained by Christ for our reconciliation to God in him, in all cases in which a Christian soul can be distressed, that such a treasure there is deposited by him, in the Church. And then the testimony of a rectified Conscience, that thou hast sincerely applied those general helps to thy particular soul. Come so far, and then, as the Suburbs touch the City, and the Porch the Church and deliver thee into it, so shall this Viatory, this preparatory, this initiatory and inchoative blessedness deliver thee over to the everlasting blessedness of the Kingdom of heaven."(John Donne, Sermons, vol. IX, pp. 126-27)


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I can't help but think that this inchoate, indeterminate state of blessedness is what Buddha describes at times.

Does Buddha ever describe this state of inchoate blessedness in terms of "the mercy of God in Christ" and as consisting in the assurances described? Donne is calling his congregation to acknowledge all that, and if the blessedness derives from that acknowledgment, can it really be said to be what Buddha was describing? This is not to deny what Buddha may have considered blessedness to be, but I wonder if the Buddhist and the Christian notions of blessedness can simply be identified.

JAK --It seems to me that Donne is speaking of two different states of mind here, though he is not entirely consistent about what they are. First, he says there is "a Viatory, a preparatory, an initiatory, an inchoative blessedness in this life. What is that? All agree in this definition, that blessedness is that in quo quiescit animus, in which the mind, the heart, the desire of man hath settled and rested, in which it found a Centrical reposedness, an acquiescence, a contentment." Note that he calls it variously (and, I think, inconsistently) a beginning, a way, and a process which is "beyond" any particular human's desires. This is an unspecified sort of blessedness, without any thoughts, apparently, and it's beyond desire.. It sounds very like one of the Buddha's "enlightenments" which is indescribable apparently because there is nothing specific about it or even generic about it which can be described. But the intuition is pleasant, wanting nothing more insofar as it it "settled and rested. . ." In other words, it goes beyond the beginning to an end.But then he hedges what he has just said, and talks about an apparently *different* experience: "Here, in the prayers of the Congregation God comes to us; here in his Ordinance of Preaching, God delivers himself to us; here in the administration of his Sacraments,"For Donne at the *beginning* of this text this is a preparation, but God is not found in this preparation, He is found in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, when God comes to us.Obviously the experiences of the sacraments are not inchoate, so I think he is muddling two different sorts of states of mind. My question then becomes: is he saying that the first, inchoate experience continues while the second (God's coming to us in temporal things) continues along with the state of blessedness or contentment?At any rate, I think he is in fact distinguishing two different sorts of experience, and the first seems much like what Buddha sometimes describes. Of course, Buddha knew nothing of Christ and his sacraments so the awareness of the presence of God as known by Christians in the sacraments is not found in his experiences. (I think that Buddha's great intuition is of the facticity of God, of Being without any of Its transcendental aspects, such s goodness or truth, aspects which Jews, Christians and Muslims sometimes grasp in mystical experience. I suspect that what Buddha grasped was the Infinite IT IS of Parmenides. But that's a whole book that has yet to be written. (Actually, some scholarly work has found an apparent connection between one of the pre-Socratics and the Hindus. I wonder whether the Buddhists weren't also known in some of the Greek mystery cults and in other pre-Socratics such as Parmenides.)One of the things I admire most about Buddha is his phenomenology of human experiences of all sorts, including some really far out mystical ones (not all of which are religious!). His view of the self (or no-self!) is very complex. I think the Christian mystical theologians could learn a lot from him.As to Donne, ISTM this text just isn't clear about what sort of experience(s) he is referring to. In some places he seems to be concerned with garden variety religious experience, but in other parts he seems to be talking about full-fledged fulfillment, ecstasy even which isn't necessarily of God as the Christians think of Him. But given that the Tudors were bent on exterminating monkish things in the England of Donne's day, it wouldn't be surprising if the training of Anglican priests was short on mystical theology. Still, I wonder if Donne studied Bonaventure, for instance, or any of the other medieval mystical theologians.

Ann: I don't think Donne is describing two different experiences. He repeats the adjectives modifying "blessedness" several times, and in response to whether such blessedness is possible in this life, he says it is because God comes to us in Christ and in the ordinances of the Church. So I don't think he's talking about two different states of mind.Donne was well acquainted with the Fathers of the Church, whom he quotes often, and of the medievals, he cites Bernard, Aquinas, and others, including Bonaventure. Here is a paragraph in which he shows himself familiar with a medieval debate on the essence of eternal blessedness:

BLESSEDNESSE IT SELF, is God himselfe; our blessednesse is our possession; our union with God. In what consists this? A great limbe of the Schoole with their Thomas, place this blessednesse, this union with God, In visione, in this, That in heaven I shall see God, see God essentially, God face to face, God as he is. We do not see one another so, in this world; In this world we see but outsides- In heaven I shall see God, and God essentially. But then another great branch of the Schoole, with their Scotus, place this blessednesse, this union with God, in Amore, in this, that in heaven, I shall love God. Now love presumes knowledge; for Amari nisi nota non possunt, we can love nothing, but that which we do, or think we do understand. There, in heaven, I shall know God, so, as that I shall be admitted, not onely to an Adoration of God, to an admiration of God, to a prosternation, and reverence before God, but to an affection, to an office, of more familiarity towards God, of more equality with God, I shall love God. But even love it selfe, as noble a passion as it is, is but a Paine, except we enjoy that we love; and therefore another branch of the Schoole, with their Aureolus, place this blessednesse, this union of our souls with God, in Gaudio, in our joy, that is, in our enjoying of God. In this world we enjoy nothing; enjoying presumes perpetuity; and here, all things are fluid, transitory: There I shall enjoy, and possesse for ever, God himself. But yet, every one of these, to see God, or to love God, or to enjoy God, have seemed to some too narrow to comprehend this blessednesse, beyond which, nothing can be proposed; and therefore another limbe of the Schoole, with their Bonaventure, place this blessednesse in all these together. And truly, if any of those did exclude any of these, so, as that I might see God, and not love him, or love God, and not enjoy him, it could not well be called blessednesse; but he that hath any one of these, hath every one, all: And Wherefore the greatest part concurre, and safely, in visione, That vision is beatification, to see God, as he is, is that blessednesse.

JAK ==Thanks for the long quotation. Indeed, he did know the medievals :-)


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.