For years, I loathed John Donne’s poem “Holy Sonnet XIV,” dismissing it as Donne being unable to envision anything beyond the abusive power dynamics that so often permeate our world. Its language and imagery seemed too haunted by sexual violence, too mired in a dichotomy between an overpowering God and a humanity delineated only by sin. Like so many LGBTQAI+ Christians, I had spent years praying that God would change me, hoping to be delivered from that part of myself that I was told again and again both silently and aloud was unacceptable in God’s sight. As I sought to claim my share in the Beloved Community, to recognize the Divine image and likeness within myself, I felt weary of being so defined. Hadn’t I wrestled enough?
Before we discuss quite what shifted, let me share the poem with you in all of its complicated, even heartbreaking, beauty:
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.
As you may have noticed, Donne’s sonnet reworks texts from the Hebrew Bible to articulate a startlingly intimate relationship with our “three-person’d God” and how it is constrained by human failings. He plays with the prophetic metaphor of God, Israel, and their covenant as that of one spouse to another (especially as seen in Hosea); Jacob’s night of struggling with the celestial at the Ford of Jabbok (Genesis 23); and the breathless longing for consummation from the Song of Songs: “I opened to my beloved, /but my beloved had turned and was gone. /My soul failed me when he spoke. /I sought him, but did not find him; /I called him, but he gave no answer.” (5:6) The narrator yearns to be transfigured, to be remade in a new creation, so that they may “rise and stand” in the fullness of communion with our Lord. Even as they “dearly love” God, their intentions to realize that love are all too often stymied by their own preconceptions and shame. Unable to welcome God wholly into their heart, they beg God to possess it in the understandings of the society around them. The repetition of the verbs throughout the poem reiterate this divide, weighing the reader down in their relentless and martial reverberation. In short, the very language of the poem strains against itself.
Yes, Donne’s poem is about a love disfigured by force. And one reading would suggest that it’s a form of the same struggle that I experienced as a young queer Christian between who I am and who the Church said I ought to be if I wished to truly love God. But I would argue that such a reading is falling into the same trap as the narrator of the sonnet. We speak in divisions and violence because it is how we are taught to perceive this world. As I’ve noted before, political philosopher Thomas Hobbes describes the nature of war in his book Leviathan as consisting not in the actually fighting, but in all the time when there is no assurance to the contrary. In much the same way, Donne speaks in terms of force because all too often that is how our love, even our love of God, is experienced—with no assurance to the contrary. We know shame, so we assume that sin must be the same thing. We know that we are not as we ought to be, so we perpetuate the cycle of harm that we have inherited. We are imprisoned by our own lack of imagination.
The issue is that shame is exactly the kind of sin from which Donne begs God to deliver us. It’s a distortion of the relationship with oneself, a distortion that we often thrust upon each other to try to justify our own shortcomings, our own need for Divine grace. Shame is the internalization of external expectations, not a true accounting of what it is to “be free” to love God as we ought. Or to love ourselves as we ought. There is a world of difference between the prayer to be good, even better, and the prayer to be good enough. One acknowledges that redemption remains a process for us, remains a continual re-forging as we are bit by bit transfigured into the fullness of our glory. We are children of God already, and we have also not yet grown wholly into ourselves. The other is to elide ourselves from salvation history, suggesting that we are only redeemable insofar as it diverges from who we currently are. It’s to make little room for grace.
These days, I recognize myself in “Holy Sonnet XIV.” (It might be worth noting that Donne was ordained a priest by the time he wrote it—not that clergypeople don’t get it wrong from time to time.) It can be so easy to let myself get caught up in the understandings of the world, leaving little room for grace. Reading the news from the special session of the United Methodist General Conference, I lamented all of ways that we’re prone to confuse sin and shame, love and force. So, if this week has reopened old wounds, reminding you of struggles that you thought long past, know that you are not alone. If this week has you feeling smug about how much better the Episcopal Church is at loving God’s LGBTQAI+ children, remember how much it’s still a process for us. Thus, I’ll end with a rewording of Samuel Beckett that I think Donne would surely recognize: Love again. Fail again. Love better.