john davies
notes from a small curate



    Batter My Heart

    Holy Trinity Prayer and Praise 27/4/03

    Isaiah 26:1-8, 16-19, Luke 24:1-12

    Poem quoted in the Mossley Hill Parish magazine....

    Holy Sonnet XVI: Batter My Heart
    John Donne (1572-1631)
      Batter my heart, three person'd God; for You
      As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
      That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
      Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.
      I, like an usurped town, to another due,
      Labour to admit You, but Oh, to no end,
      Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
      But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue,
      Yet dearly I love You, and would be loved fain,
      But am betrothed unto your enemy:
      Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
      Take me to You, imprison me, for I
      Except You enthral me, never shall be free,
      Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.
    In it the poet pictures God as a battering ram, beating on his heart. The poet wants God to do this, more and more, to feel the full force of God 'to break, blow, burn and make me new'.

    Donne then pictures himself as a city under siege, wanting to open its gates to God, but captive to his own weakness and unfaithfulness.

    And then, at the end, the poet starts using the language of love to describe how he feels about God and what he wants God to do:
      Yet dearly I love You, and would be loved fain,
      But am betrothed unto your enemy:
      Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
    This is astonishing writing, intense language, describing a purposeful and agressive sort of love:
      Take me to You, imprison me, for I
      Except You enthral me, never shall be free,
      Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.
    Not the sort of language you expect to hear in Mossley Hill, not the sort of language you hear in church very often. As Judi Creese writes in the Mossley Hill magazine,
      'The final paradox, that Donne may only be chaste if God ravishes him, is as intensely shocking today as it was in the 17th century. It is unsurprising that these words, combined with the irreverent, confrontational demands made of God, raised more than a few clerical eyebrows. Personally I find its abrasiveness compelling.'
    It is compelling. And in some ways it shouldn't feel out of place in church. Because all Donne is doing, really, is expressing how deep is his desire for God.

    And we hear that sort of thing often in our worship, even if we're not always awake to it.

    The people of Israel, fresh out of Egypt after their exile, had similar things to say to God. Expressed through people like Isaiah, who in this evening's reading said:
      My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you.
    - this is lovers language, just like John Donne's:
      Yes, LORD, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.
    Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that the people of old Israel only related to God as one who made rules which had to be obeyed. But these words, echoed so often in the Psalms and other writings, are intimate, they're the expression of people who want to know God closely, feel God deeply. As Walter Brueggeman puts it, these words demonstrate a:
      Profound hunger for communion [with God] that cuts deeply beyond contractural obedience. We are here at the core of [these people's] spirituality, the kind that permits trust in the face of endless adversity... (Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 1-39, p.205)
    Peter was one of those people. Raised in the tradition of Isaiah, Peter was one who felt God as a lover, wanted to know God as intimately as he could. Which was why he got so close to Jesus, why he understood, more than any of the others, who Jesus was and what he'd come to do.

    We could perhaps picture Peter in those dark days after Jesus' death, repeating the words of Isaiah which he knew so well. Using them as a prayer, a lament to Jesus, whose company he missed so much:
      My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you.
    In those empty, anxious hours, he may have used Isaiah's words to express the disciples' determination to persevere in their faith in Jesus Christ:
      Yes, LORD, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.
    "We wait for you" - they waited three days; and at the end of that waiting came Mary Magdalene, telling her astonishing tale of an empty tomb and an angel's message, "He is not here; he has risen!"

    Peter responded by getting up and running to the tomb. Maybe we understand a little more now, why he did that - he acted like a lover, wanting more than anything to see for himself what had happened to the one he loved so much.

    Luke describes the scene and Peter's response:
      Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.
    He would remember God's promise to his faithful people, as recorded in Isaiah:
      Your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy... the earth will give birth to her dead.
    He would remember Jesus's own words, that three days after his crucifixion, he would rise.

    How battered Peter's heart must have felt at that moment. How ravished by God he must have seemed.

    When we're in love with someone we don't always know what is happening, our feelings override our awareness. But we know we are in love, and that's all that matters.

    We can't always feel that way, and perhaps it's best that we don't always feel that way, but it's good to be reminded of the depth and beauty of our love, sometimes. It's good to hear words which provoke us into maybe telling our loved one just how deep and how strong our desire still is, for them.


    (So we sing ... As the deer pants for the water....)


    PRAYERS

    My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you.
      - let us remember what God means to us;

      - and let us, in the silence, in our own words, tell God what our heart says about Him...
    Yes, LORD, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.
      - let us consider the memorable things which we have learned about God from good teachers, good friends, strong experiences in life...

      - and let us ask God to keep teaching us, especially in those areas of weakness where we ned to learn so much...
    "He is not here; he has risen!"
      - let us give thanks for the resurrection of Jesus, the point in history around which all else pivots;

      - and ask God to help us see resurrection in today's world, new life overcoming death, in countries, in conflicts, in cities and in homes...
    Your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy... the earth will give birth to her dead.
      - let us hold before God all living in darkness and experiencing a kind of death: the sick, the lonely, the outcasts - asking that they will find hope in God;

      - and finally let us give thanks for all who have gone before us, and whom we will meet again in glory when God's kingdom comes...