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 usurp’d town to another due,
Labor 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 lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Hear Malcolm Guite read today’s poem
Spiritual truth is difficult for the rational mind to grasp. The Bible says the Holy Spirit will guide us to all truth and indeed, absent God’s intrusion our modern minds gravitate to only that which is reasonable – and reason is a hobbled teacher. We understand this most directly in matters of love, for as Pascal reminds us “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.”
In today’s poem by John Donne, we see this on full display. To fulfill the greatest commandment, our love for God must be one of unmitigated passion, and the poet acknowledges his wavering heart. In The Word in the Wilderness, Malcolm Guite says this:
Now it’s personal. If the call to God to stop tinkering seemed too mechanistic, and the siege warfare too grandiose and impersonal, now we come to the heart of things and the true intimacy. Now the quest to be re-united and ‘right’ with God becomes, paradoxically the yearning away from the mere institution to the call of true love. In an age of arranged marriages, Donne who himself had incurred the wrath of his patron and a term in prison for marrying for love, knew what it was to have a true love frustrated and constrained by external forces. It is a daring and helpful image to think of God as the secret lover to whom we yearn in spite of all the current institutional commercial and consumer forces, our forced marriage to secularism, that try to keep us from him!
Was there a time when you loved someone beyond reason?
How does that inform your understanding of the greatest commandment?
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
Dig Deeper: Literature & Liturgy
(1571/2–1631), Metaphysical poet and Dean of St Paul’s. He was a member of a RC family, his mother being the sister of the Jesuit missionary priest Jasper Heywood, and a granddaughter of a sister of Sir Thomas More. He entered Hart Hall, Oxford, in 1584 and possibly studied after this at Cambridge, or perhaps abroad. He entered Thavies Inn in 1591 and transferred to Lincoln’s Inn in 1592. During this period he was much exercised over the problem of his religious allegiance and for a time, according to I. *Walton, ‘betrothed himself to no Religion that might give him any other denomination than a Christian’. By 1598 he had certainly conformed to the Church of England. In 1596 he accompanied Essex and Raleigh to Cadiz and in 1597 to the Azores; and in 1598 became private secretary to the Lord Keeper, Sir Thomas Egerton, a post from which he was dismissed four years later owing to his secret marriage to Ann More, his master’s wife’s niece, in 1601. During the next years he and his growing family lived in poverty and dependence on the charity of friends. Around this period he composed but did not publish Biathanatos, a casuistic discussion and defence of suicide. He found employment in controversial writing and in 1610 wrote the Pseudo-Martyr to persuade Catholics that they might take the Oath of Allegiance. In the next year he wrote a witty satire on the Jesuits, Ignatius his Conclave. After repeated failures to find secular employment he at last complied with the wish of the King and was ordained in 1615. The reason he himself gave for delay was scruple at accepting orders as a means of making a living. In 1621 he became Dean of St Paul’s, where he preached on all great festivals. He was also a regular preacher at court and a favourite with both James and Charles. During a serious illness in 1623 he wrote his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), and the famous ‘Hymn to God the Father’. He died in 1631 and was buried in St Paul’s. His monument, showing him standing in his shroud, survived the Great Fire.
F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 503–504.
Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings. For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page.
Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith
For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.