A Companion in Crisis: A Modern Paraphrase of John Donne’s Devotions

By Philip Yancey
Illumify Media Global, pp. 160, $14.95

As an Amazon Associate,
TLC earns from qualifying purchases.

Review by Timothy Jones

Over the years, I’ve dabbled in John Donne’s key works. At least in theory, I’ve had a soft spot for this poet-preacher-priest of 17th-century England, a contemporary of Shakespeare. My year of Anglican studies two decades ago at the University of the South (Sewanee) made me aware of the drama of his life: fame as a secular romantic poet, his ruined career and imprisonment for marrying young Anne Moore, tenure later as a renowned London cathedral dean. I could vaguely recall, too, the challenges of ministry he faced in plague-ridden times, and during his battle with disease, which all now seems especially relevant.

But even in the course taught by Professor Bob Hughes on the history and literature of spirituality, even with a week of my Sewanee class devoted solely to Donne, I found his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions tough sledding. I dutifully read the excerpts found in the Paulist Press Classics of Western Spirituality volume on Donne, our text. I sought out the passages in the Devotions that helped make Donne one of the most quoted of the English divines: “For whom the bell tolls,” for instance, written as Donne faced down a potentially fatal illness (it turned out not to be bubonic plague, as first feared, but a form of typhus). Or perhaps best known of all, “no man is an island, entire of itself; every [one] is part of continent,” forever immortalizing his gift for finding the apropos phrase while challenging self-isolating individualism.

But truly stick with the work? I confess I didn’t get far.

Philip Yancey, critically hailed and widely published author, was not afflicted with my easily deterred ways. Not only has he long been a fan, but Yancey turned to Donne with renewed zeal when he realized how Donne, almost 400 years ago, could shed brilliant light and pathos on our time’s pandemic languishing.

Yancey noted a pattern in his friends that was puzzlingly similar to mine. “Over the years,” Yancey writes in the introduction to his new publishing project, “I have bought copies of Devotions and given them to friends. ‘Did you read it?’ I’ve asked time and again, only to get a sheepish reply such as ‘I tried, really, but just couldn’t past the language and old-fashioned syntax.”

Undaunted, Yancey writes, “In an act of either daring or folly, I decided to attempt a modern paraphrase of this classic work.”

How glad we can be that he did. Yancey, still going strong in a career that has seen 15 million books in print, published in over 50 languages worldwide, has both the veteran writer’s gravitas and a journalist’s sensitivity to simpler expression. Many of his books have circled back to his nagging questions about finding God in suffering, so it’s no surprise that Yancey would have pursued Donne, nor a surprise that Yancey offers insight on living and dying well, to say nothing of capturing Donne’s insight on weathering disease.

I therefore found A Companion in Crisis a warmly accessible rendering of Donne’s pained and fervent account of a month’s confinement to his bed, never knowing when a dawning day might be his last.

Yancey is quick to clarify that he’s been “brutally selective in slashing anything that required explanations: archaic science or Greek mythology or even obscure Bible passages.” This volume serves best as an aid to prayer and careful reflection or as an inviting introduction rather than a scholarly work.

I am grateful for Yancey’s accomplishment: An introduction and a few chapters before and after Donne’s 23 Devotions give compelling perspective and help the reader make connections to our ordeals and pandemic disruptions. The arrangement also rounds up the chapters to 30, making this slim, inviting volume suitable for a month of daily readings with Donne.

With Yancey’s adapting of phrases and trimming away of antiquated turns of expression, I’ve been able to grasp more surely the raw intensity of Donne’s prayers, the struggles and protests of his soul, and ultimately the radiant steadiness of the Renaissance cleric’s abiding faith.

The Rev. Timothy Jones, former dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina, is rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Halifax, Virginia. He is the author of more than a dozen books on prayer and the spiritual life, including The Art of Prayer: A Simple Guide to Conversation with God, and he blogs at revtimothyjones.com.