From “Sermon of Commemoration of the Lady Danvers” (1627)
I consider that I may be surprised by that day, the day of judgment. Here Saint Peter says, “the day of the Lord will come as a thief” (2 Pet. 3:10), and Saint Paul says, we cannot be ignorant of it, “your selves know perfectly, that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief” (I Thess. 5:12). And, as the judgment itself, so the judge himself says of himself, “I will come upon thee as a thief” (Rev. 3:3). He says he will and he does it. For it is not “Ecce veniam” [behold, I will come) but “Ecce venio,” “behold I do come upon thee as a thief,” and then “as a thief in the night” (Rev. 16:15).
And I do not only not know when that night shall be (for himself, as he is the Son of man, knows not that) but I do not only know what night, that is, which night; but…what kind of night he means. It is said so often, so often repeated, that he will come as a thief on the night, as that he may mean all kinds of nights.
In my night of ignorance he may come, and he may come in my night of wantonness. In my night of inordinate and sinful melancholy and suspicion of his mercy, he may come. And he may come in the night of so stupid, or so raging a sickness, as that he shall not come by coming. Not come so, that I shall receive him in the absolution of his minister, or receive him in the participation of his body and his blood in the Sacrament. So he may come upon me, as such a thief, in such a night – nay, when all these nights of ignorance, of wantonness, of desperation, of sickness, of stupidity, of rage, may be upon me all at once.
John Donne (1572-1631) was an English cleric, poet, and scholar, acclaimed as one of the finest preachers of his day. He is widely considered the preeminent metaphysical poet, prized for his inventiveness in the use of metaphor and his dramatic, vigorous style. He was ordained after a political and military career, serving as chaplain at Lincoln’s Inn, and for the last ten years of his life, as dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. His Sermon of Commemoration of the Lady Danvers was preached in Chelsea Old Church on July 1, 1627, several weeks after the death of his friend Magdalen Newport Herbert Danvers. Danvers was the mother of the saintly poet and spiritual writer George Herbert, who first published the sermon, along with several Latin and Greek poems of his own composition. John Donne is commemorated on the liturgical calendar of several Anglican churches on March 31.