By Angela Heetderks

It’s tempting, in times of scientific uncertainty, to think we have nothing to learn from Christians in the distant past. We would not wish to consult Christians from earlier eras on questions related to germ theory or the treatment of a novel coronavirus, but Christians in earlier times faced much more uncertainty and fear of disease than we do now. Physicians’ and other healers’ diagnoses were usually inaccurate. Many of the remedies available ranged from useless to downright injurious. Because earlier Christians lived in contexts in which the limitations of scientific knowledge and ability were glaringly obvious, their writings can teach us a great deal about how to think about sickness in situations in which science can’t answer all our questions or assuage all our fears.

John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral from 1621 until his death in 1631, published a series of 23 meditations following his recovery from a near-fatal illness. In these meditations, entitled Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Donne leads the reader through the experience of being suddenly taken ill, being examined and treated with doubtful success by physicians, and recovering only to be seized by the fear of relapse.

Donne wrote his meditations in a time in which nearly every person, regardless of age, would have experienced the death of close family members. Donne himself lived through the stillbirths of two children; the early deaths of three more of his children; and the death of his wife, Anne, following her 12th childbirth. During Donne’s lifetime, early death was common throughout Europe, where historians have estimated that child mortality before age seven in some regions ranged from 40 percent to as high as 68 percent.

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For many readers of Donne today, until we became used to hearing the word “pandemic” in daily conversation, it may have been easier to think of serious illness as a remote possibility. I have watched my students gape when I’ve cited statistics on infant and maternal mortality from earlier centuries. Taking health for granted was a mindset simply unavailable to Renaissance writers. In an era without antibiotics or many other effective treatments, sickness and death could overtake the healthiest of people at any time — a reality Donne portrays vividly in Meditation 1 of the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions:

We study health, and we deliberate upon our meats, and drink, and air, and exercises, and we hew, and we polish every stone, that goes to that building; and so our health is a long and regular work; but in a minute a cannon batters all, overthrows all, demolishes all; a sickness unprevented for all our diligence, unsuspected for all our curiosity; [. . .] summons us, seizes us, possesses us, destroys us in an instant.

Donne’s metaphor of sickness as a cannon aimed at the sufferer suggests both the power of disease and the urgency of throwing off any assumption that the attack will never come. Later, Donne extends the idea of sickness as conqueror when he writes, “The disease hath established a kingdom, an empire in me.” His portrayal of sickness as a conqueror that vanquishes and colonizes healthy bodies directly challenges the 21st-century tendency toward complacency.

Perhaps because we have become complacently accustomed to the many benefits of modern medicine, the COVID-19 pandemic inspires fear today; many of us are unused to being told that preventive medicine has limitations and efficacious treatments are not readily available for the diseases that may infect us. For Christians living in the 17th century, this state of affairs was common. Donne’s Meditation 12 describes how his physicians “apply pigeons, to draw the vapors from the head.” This treatment would have involved splitting a live bird in half and applying the bloody parts to the patient’s feet in an attempt to reduce his fever. Unsurprisingly, the next meditation tells us, “It is a faint comfort to know the worst, when the worst is remediless.”

While readers today can be grateful that the remedies for our ailments are unlikely to involve bloody pigeon poultices, it is valuable for us to let Donne remind us of the limitations of our knowledge and abilities. The many technological advances available in the 21st century will not always save us. For Donne, suffering engenders skepticism of physicians’ abilities:  To cure disease is good, but “but to cure the body, the root, the occasion of diseases, is a work reserved for the great Physician, which he doth never any other way, but by glorifying these bodies in the next world” (Meditation 22). Donne counterbalances his hope of bodily redemption in “the next world” with a clear-eyed view of the pervasiveness of bodily suffering in this world.

Despite his gloomy outlook on disease and the uncertain prospect of receiving efficacious treatment, Donne highly values the lives of the sick and the poor. While it is not uncommon for modern readers to assume that earlier people must have become inured to illness and death, literature by Donne and his contemporaries shows us otherwise. Donne particularly acknowledges that the poor lack access to health care and, in their sickness, suffer more acutely than he does: “How many are sicker [. . .] than I, and laid on their woeful straw at home [. . .] and have no more hope of help, though they die, than of preferment [promotion], though they live?” One of the best-known members of the clergy in his day, Donne writes of the value of the lives of the poor, who remain anonymous to him: “For they do but fill up the number of the dead in the bill, but we shall never hear their names, till we read them in the book of life, with our own” (Meditation 7). Here and throughout the meditations, Donne shows how human knowledge is characterized by limitation. But those in the “book of life,” he tells us, are known fully, equally, without preferment of rich over poor, greater over lesser.

It is in the context of his firm belief in the ubiquity of sickness and the equality of the sick that Donne writes the most famous passage of the Devotions, a meditation on hearing funeral bells ringing while in his sickbed: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. [. . . A]ny man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know [inquire] for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” (Meditation 17). It is a rousing call to care first for our community as a whole, rather than our individual interests, as Meghan O’Rourke has beautifully written in her essay on social distancing and COVID-19. And it is more. Amid a series of meditations on sickness as a sudden assailant, the uncertainty of treatment, and bodily misery, it is a call to value and cling to every human life — including the lives of the sick and dying. It is a call, not to brush aside the fear of death, but to let fear and suffering spur us toward a greater love.

Angela Heetderks, PhD is a specialist in English literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. She has published on the Book of Common Prayer and hymnody in the plays of Shakespeare.

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