My rating: 4 of 5 stars
John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions is difficult to read for a number of reasons. First is the language of the 1600s. That would be little problem for good readers if not for the second reason: Donne's penchant for extended metaphors. A third problem concerns references to a Bible few Christians are familiar with. The fourth is the combination of subject matter and the sense that Donne did not seem to be writing for a particular audience. Despite these issues, or perhaps in part because of them, this is a book worth reading.
Of course, what makes the Devotions most valuable is its painful and moving rumination on sickness and death. Donne contemplates mortality, but also the similarities between physical and spiritual disease. It is difficult to read statements like, “I must be poor and want before I can exercise the virtue of gratitude; miserable, and in torment, before I can exercise the virtue of patience” on their own, but they lead to, “To hear thy steps coming towards me is the same comfort as to see thy face present with me; whether thou do the work of a thousand years in a day, or extend the work of a day to a thousand years, as long as thou workest, it is light and comfort.” There is a good deal of learning in these passages, but not all of that education came from books.
One doesn't have to be a Christian to find hope and comfort in Donne's prose. Though I'm a Christian (and Episcopalian) I must point out there are moments where the author’s theology is suspect. These instances are minor, however, and do not overshadow the power of these meditations.
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions is often paired with “Death’s Duel,” Donne's final sermon, which addresses similar themes. I wish it wasn't. While there is some to recommend it, the piece is the kind of rambling, cut and paste hodgepodge of scripture and long winded jabbering that reminds me of many of the reasons I don't go to academic conferences. One can pass on it, and not miss much.
As a middle aged man going through my own illness and spiritual angst, I find the Devotions particularly important. I read some of these several years ago in graduate school, and fell in love with the language and the metaphors, the insight into the spiritual condition of humankind and the mercy and love of a sometimes confusing God. Now they resonate deeper for me, and I suspect I'll return to them a few more times before making my way to my sick bed, "where all that the patient says there is but a varying of his own epitaph."