Sunday, 31 March 2013

Resurrection and Easter hope in Lichfield

Resurrection in Lichfield … John Piper’s window ‘The Christ in Glory’ in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As part of my Lenten exercises this year, I followed the saints’ days in the calendars of the Church, seeking inspiration for my Lent observances in the in their lives and their writings.

In the calendar of the Church of England, today [31 March] recalls the life and work of John Donne, one of England’s most celebrated poets. However, as today is Easter Day, few people are likely to give much thought to John Donne this morning.

I am spending this Easter weekend in Lichfield Cathedral on a retreat. The Easter Liturgy at 5 a.m. before the break of dawn this morning was a Service of Light, with the Easter Proclamation, Vigil Readings, Liturgy of Initiation, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, sung by Sarum Voices. This was followed by a celebration breakfast in the College Hall in the Cathedral Close.

The Easter celebrations continue this morning with Holy Communion (BCP) at 8 a.m., Morning Prayer (8.45 a.m.), and at 10.30 a.m. the Sung Eucharist with Renewal of Baptismal Vows, with the Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra accompanying the Cathedral Choir in a programme of Mozart. Later this Easter Day, there is Solemn Evensong in the cathedral at 3.30 p.m.

I am reminded, though, that this year [2013] also marks the 400th anniversary of John Donne (1573-1631) writing his poem Good Friday 1613: Travelling Westwards.

John Donne wrote that poem in a letter to his friend, Sir Henry Goodere of Polesworth Hall, a patron of the arts and leader of the Polesworth Group of poets. Polesworth Hall, a short distance east of Tamworth, was originally Polesworth Abbey, founded by Saint Editha, who gave her name to the parish church in Tamworth. Polesworth Hall, which has been Polesworth Vicarage since the 1930s, is just 18 km (12 miles) from Lichfield, although today the parish is in the Diocese of Birmingham.

In 1613, Good Friday fell on 2 April, and on Tuesday 2 April this year a workshop exploring Polesworth’s rich cultural heritage of modern-day poets and writers is being held at Polesworth Abbey 400 years after John Donne wrote Good Friday 1613: Travelling Westwards.

The Vicar of Polesworth, Father Philip Wells, says: “We are very excited to be celebrating this 400th anniversary with a series of talks and giving people a chance to reflect on Donne’s poem in the wider context of the Abbey site and the Christian faith which inspired it.”

TS Eliot was deeply disparaging when it came to John Donne: “About Donne there hangs the shadow of the impure motive; and impure motives lend their aid to a facile success. He is a little of the religious spellbinder, the Reverend Billy Sunday of his time, the flesh-creeper, the sorcerer of emotional orgy. We emphasize this aspect to the point of the grotesque. Donne had a trained mind; but without belittling the intensity or the profundity of his experience, we can suggest that this experience was not perfectly controlled, and that he lacked spiritual discipline.”

But John Donne’s poem Good Friday 1613 is about a profound experience and has no shadow of “impure motive” hanging over it, for it was not written for publication, and so it offers a very personal look at the meaning of Christ’s death for him and for the restoration of the whole universe.

On his journey westward over that weekend 400 years ago, John Donne realised the general aberration of nature that prompts us to put pleasure before our devotion to Christ. We ought to be heading east at Easter so as to contemplate and share Christ’s suffering; and recalling up that event in his mind’s eye, he recognises the paradox of the ignominious death of God upon a Cross:

Could I behold those hands, which span the poles,
And turn all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?

However, as I celebrate the Resurrection on this Easter morning in Lichfield Cathedral, I want to share two other poems by John Donne that bring together the themes of Good Friday and Easter Day.

Resurrection, by John Donne

Moist with one drop of Thy blood, my dry soul
Shall – though she now be in extreme degree
Too stony hard, and yet too fleshly – be
Freed by that drop, from being starved, hard or foul,
And life by this death abled shall control
Death, whom Thy death slew; nor shall to me
Fear of first or last death bring misery,
If in thy life-book my name thou enroll.
Flesh in that long sleep is not putrified,
But made that there, of which, and for which it was;
Nor can by other means be glorified.
May then sin's sleep and death soon from me pass,
That waked from both, I again risen may
Salute the last and everlasting day.

Easter Day, by John Donne

Sleep sleep old Sun! thou canst not have repast
As yet, the wound thou took’st on Friday last;
Sleep then, and rest; the world may bearer thy stay,
A better Sun rose before thee to-day,
Who, not content t’enlighten all that dwell
On the earth’s face, as thou, enlighten’d hell;
And made the darker fires languish in that vale,
As, at thy presence here, our fires grow pale.
Whose body having walk’d on earth, and now
Hasting to Heaven, would – that he might allow
Himself unto all stations, and fill all,
For these three days become a mineral;
He was all gold when he lay down, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make even sinful flesh like his.
Had one of those, whose credulous piety
Thought, that a Soul one might discern and see
Go from a body, ’at this sepulchre been,
And, issuing from the sheet, this body seen,
He would have justly thought this body a soul,
If not of any man, yet of the whole.
Desunt caetera

The closing Latin inscription, Desunt Caetera “the rest is wanting.” This a phrase was added at the end of manuscripts whose last pages or sentences had been lost. But here John Donne may be referring to the mystery of the Resurrection, telling us that while the Resurrection of Christ is perfect, our own resurrection is an unfinished task that remains to be fulfilled.

For information on next Tuesday’s events at Polesworth Abbey, contact: Father Philip on 01827 892340 or email . Read more at:

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