“… affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.”
Affliction, a treasure? A treasure we don’t have enough of?
Strange words. Strange words for a world that medicates pain. Strange especially for our age that prizes material wealth and physical and emotional wellness seemingly above all other values. Very strange words, perhaps even offensive words, to associate with hope! Pain-free living is the goal; affliction the bane. Who would deny it? And during this time of the COVID-19 crisis, for each of us and all of us together, as we grapple with intensified suffering and growing instability on a personal, local, national, and global scale, how might affliction present a treasure? A treasure for whom?
Who writes like that?! Affliction, a treasure? An ignorant person who knows next to nothing about intense pain? Who doesn’t hear or believe the news? A sadist, maybe? Some sick soul who wants others to suffer? Or maybe some warped mind jealous of others’ pleasures, one who wishes others would suffer even half as much as he does? The kind of person who thinks, “Why should things be better for you than the rest of us?” A mind miserable with bitter resentments and seething hatreds, bent on being a kill-joy?
Affliction, a treasure?
Who writes like that? None of the above. No ignoramus, no sadist, no kill-joy. The man who wrote these words is none other than the famous English poet John Donne, a man of deep sorrows writing in London in the 1600s during the time of the plagues. In his capacity as the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Donne had the task of speaking consolation to the dying and to the bereaved during three waves of the Black Plague that killed tens of thousands each time. In his “Meditation 17,” when he penned the more famous lines, “No man is an Island, intire of it selfe…. Any mans death diminishes me,” he insists that affliction is a treasure that can, indeed ought to, draw us “nearer and nearer our home, heaven.” He explains, “No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.”
So there it is. Not only does Donne say that affliction is a treasure, he insists that we don’t have enough of it if it doesn’t draw us closer to God and so to our eternal destiny. Affliction should correct our vision. What kind of a world did we think we were living in, anyway? One where prosperity, health, and happiness was the goal? An achievable goal? Affliction reminds us of the kind of world we are living in, one where our best efforts can fail. One where terrible things happen and we realize we can neither prevent nor fix them. One where the prosperity, health, and happiness we long for is at best temporary, perhaps serving as markers (or “signposts,” as C. S. Lewis has said), towards their fulfillment in eternity. So as long as we aim only at temporary well-being, or substitute versions of well-being, we are deluded. In this meditation, Donne concludes that our focus therefore ought to be on “God, our onely securitie.” Any lesser hope is a false one. Affliction serves to awaken us. No, it’s not an awakening we ask for, surely not. But would it really be better to remain asleep? To believe a falsehood?
In the last class I taught my Major Authors’ students just over two weeks ago before my university switched from classroom instruction to on-line teaching, we ended with Donne’s Holy Sonnet, “What if this present world were the world’s last night?” I’d set this for our syllabus long before I knew it would be our last face-to-face class. The students moaned a little when I announced it: an ominous title as the Western world was catapulting into higher gear to face the COVID-19 pandemic. The sonnet opens thus:
What if this present were the world’s last night?
Mark in my heart, O soul, where thou dost dwell….
We pondered how in the next twelve lines Donne has us focus on the crucifixion of Christ, a most appropriate reflection for this season of Lent. How counter-intuitive the concept that the horrific sufferings of Christ on a Roman cross should be “beauteous.” But there it is: what was utter nonsense to the ancient world’s veneration of beauty and power, and to our own, is beauty. The utter weakness and ugliness of Christ’s suffering is the true beauty of Divine Love that saves you and me. God’s Love, Christ crucified—this ought to be our ongoing meditation.
I pointed to C. S. Lewis’s essay “The World’s Last Night,” an allusion to Donne’s sonnet, in which Lewis takes seriously the unpopular biblical teaching that this world will have a sudden violent end with the Second Coming of Christ, the event that will bring us all before God’s “infallible judgement.” And since we will then receive the true verdict on all of our attitudes and actions in light of eternity, Lewis counsels, we ought to “train ourselves to ask more and more often how the thing which we are saying or doing (or failing to do) at each moment will look when the irresistible light streams in upon it; that light which is so different from the light of this world.”
For Donne, for Lewis, for myriad others, affliction, one’s own death, and the end of the world itself, mainly means this: how should I be living today? How do my daily choices and values look from the perspective of eternity? Am I trying to leave the world a better place? Am I helping others on their pilgrimage? Am I taking care of myself in the right ways? Do I really believe that “no man is an island” and therefore every life matters, is of eternal consequence? Or, have I kept too close company with temporary goals, making them my main focus? Have I paid too little attention to what is lasting? Do I welcome the vision correction that affliction offers me?
In the days and weeks ahead of this season’s pandemic, we are being tested. Of course this isn’t sensationally new; it’s just more obvious now. Some of us have been severely tested already. I’m not one of them—yet. Likely all of us will be more severely tested than we imagined just weeks ago. The health care systems we might have trusted are proving vulnerable, as is the economy. We hear of suicides. We wonder, who will lose a job? A home? A loved one? “God forbid,” is our proper prayer for mercy. But in whatever ways we are tested, great and small, may we receive the Heavenly grace to pass the test. And take heart from those who have gone before us, like John Donne, and say with them, “Affliction is a treasure—a treasure that can draw us close to God, make us fit for God.”
Affliction brings many snapshots of hope. As one of my dear colleagues and friends likes to sign his emails, “Keep looking for the grace.” Here are some recent snapshots of hope.
Snapshots of Hope
My cousin near Hamburg tells me about lighting a candle in one’s window every night for twenty minutes—for prayer time alone, and for visibility to show solidarity with the community. She keeps me posted on all the news from our other cousins in Germany.
Our nephew in Spain brings groceries to his in-laws and sends his parents pictures of having dinner with his young family on their balcony.
My niece and her husband in Munich read favourite stories with their young children, play together in the garden, and work as best as they can at their computers.
My cousin in Los Angeles helps her parents and enjoys cooking meals for her family members who are working from home. She tells me how Martin Luther’s advice when the bubonic plague came to his area is precisely what we need at this time—as if it had been written for the Corona virus today.
A colleague and friend in Texas sends the liveliest, most loving emails.
With my friend in Toronto we ponder the significance of the COVID-19 pandemic happening during Lent. This year, 2020, the world is experiencing Lent in a most poignant way. It is a time for silence. Parties are illegal. It is a time for tears. It is a time for deeper prayer. It is a time to reflect on our choices and values. And God’s peace is there for us.
My nephew in Seattle preaches to his congregation through video technology.
My church family in Langley does the same.
My students and I chat likewise. One student commented the other day that they felt even closer to each other and in a more intimate space than in the classroom and how encouraging this was as she missed being with her classmates and professors.
The mother of one of my students works in a seniors’ home and goes to work almost every day. She wears the “space suit,” goes through boxes of gloves per day, and I imagine gives these seniors the warm loving smile they need so much and that I know so well from her daughter.
My faculty administrative coordinator cheerfully helps me via email even late at night and first thing in the morning.
A colleague sends us amazing poetry that one of her students wrote for her course in these difficult days.
My neighbour waves at me, smiling, as I take out the garbage.
At some moments young siblings in the neighbourhood laugh out loud as they play in their backyard.
My husband brings oranges to my sister.
I look more often at the wooden plaque my brother gave me that belonged to our Oma: “Sage es Jesu” (Tell Jesus).
One of my daughters makes a fabulous chicken dinner with herbs from our garden. In between her writing work.
Another daughter bakes irresistibly tasty chocolate chip banana muffins. In between studies.
My son records himself doing a Bible reading at the tile bistro table on our deck on a sunny afternoon, to be shared during this upcoming week’s Palm Sunday service.
My colleague and friend Brenton Dickieson posts the most amazing blogs, rich and deep, at seemingly lightning speed. You can follow him at apilgriminnarnia.com.
My husband and I enjoy his personal signature gourmet coffee together. We dream and joke and speak sober words with each other.
My young adult children don’t let me forget the story I promised to finish writing for them.
One evening my family sits down in the living room to begin reading aloud Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice together—and we burst into healing laughter at practically every line.
So, yes, Affliction is a Treasure that affords many Snapshots of hope. Everywhere, across the globe, we listen to each other’s sorrows, fears, hopes–and we pray. We pray. And amidst much else, we feel the love—love we share that comes from above.
Is this not good? Are these not things to treasure? Aren’t we thankful? Is this not part of what John Donne meant? That affliction gives us the opportunity to draw near to true treasure? The daily ones, freely given from our Father who is in Heaven? And so that we might seek Him out with greater persistence, in our perplexity and in our gratitude? As we experience these treasures, these moments, we participate in what is everlasting—and by these means are strengthened for this present that we find ourselves in.
My friends, keep looking for the snapshots of hope. And take good care of yourselves and each other. We’ve been told that our living hope far exceeds this present world’s trials (2 Corinthians 4: 17-18).