Sunday, May 27, 2007

Millions of Elephants multiplied into one

A Sunday morning of interminable rain, so no cycling: I find myself reading an interminable book, Donne’s Fifty Sermons of 1649.

In this passage from the 40th sermon, Donne considers congregations who applaud or acclaim their preacher. Watchfully monitoring himself for vaingloriousness as he did, he disapproves, but, ever histrionic in his piety, one can sense his fascination. He has gathered a lot of examples of such behaviour from the church fathers:

“…When we consider the manner of hearing Sermons, in the Primitive Church, though we doe not wish that manner to be renewed, yet we cannot deny, but that though it were accompanied with many inconveniences, it testified a vehement devotion, and sense of that that was said, by the preacher, in the hearer; for, all that had been formerly used in Theaters, Acclamations and Plaudites, was brought into the Church, and not only the vulgar people, but learned hearers were as loud, and as profuse in those declarations, those vocal acclamations, and those plaudites in the passages, and transitions, in Sermons, as ever they had been at the Stage, or other recitations of their Poets, or Orators …As we may see in Saint Augustin, the manner was, that when the people were satisfied in any point which the Preacher handled, they would almost tell him so, by an acclamation, and give him leave to pass to another point …”

Donne then notes that the practices he evidences widely in the early church have not died out:

“… And, to contract this consideration, wee see evidently, that this fashion continued in the Church, even to Saint Bernard’s time. Neither is it left yet in some places, beyond the Seas, where the people doe yet answer the Preacher, it his questions be applyable to them, and may induce an answer, with these vocal acclamations, Sir, we will, Sir, we will not.

Finally, he considers his own congregation in St Paul’s, where, although the noises his auditory make are relatively subdued, he is very much aware of their importance:

“And truly wee come too near re-inducing this vain glorious fashion, in those often periodical murmurings, and noises, which you make, when the Preacher concludeth any point; for those impertinent Interjections swallow up one quarter of his hour, and many that were not within distance of hearing the Sermon, will give a censure upon it, according to the frequency, or paucity of these acclamations.”

This is the sermon where Donne subsequently has a go at conveying the disparity between God’s immensity and man’s next-to-nothingness. One wonders if his congregation murmured their acclaim when Donne asked them to grapple with the notion of God being vaster than “millions of elephants”?

“… Amongst natural Creatures, because howsoever they differ in bigness, yet they have some proportion to one another, we consider that some very little creatures, contemptible in themselves, are yet called enemies to great creatures, as the Mouse is to the Elephant.(For the greatest Creature is not Infinite, nor the least is not Nothing.) But shall man, between whom and nothing, there went but a word, Let us make Man, That Nothing, which is infinitely less then a Mathematical point, then an imaginary Atom, shall this Man, this yesterday’s Nothing, this tomorrow worse then Nothing, be capable of that honour, that dishonourable honour, that confounding honour, to be the enemy of God, of God who is not only a multiplied Elephant, millions of Elephants multiplied into one, but a multiplied World, a multiplied All, All that can be conceived by us, infinite many times over; Nay, (if we may dare to say so,) a multiplied God, a God that hath the Millions of the Heathens gods in himself alone, shall this man be an enemy to this God? Man cannot be allowed so high a sin, as enmity with God. The Devil himself is but a slave to God, and shall Man be called his enemy?”

This was a favourite passage of my late tutor, Colin Williamson, who had the 1649 copy of Fifty sermons preached by that learned and reverend divine, John Donne from the Fellows’ Library on his own bookshelves, and would at least once a term leaf through that immense folio to regale his tutees with it. In Donne's volatile imagination, totalities are always turning into nothingness; he has to keep making God bigger to stop Him from disappearing (like love does in the poems).

My image is by the devout Pieter de Grebber, ‘God inviting Christ to sit on the Throne at His Right Hand’, as I wanted a 17th century artist depicting God as impressively as he can manage (but, like Donne, emerging with a rather murky conception). I suppose that God’s bowling ball is the universe, while He appears in His wisdom to have switched over to a low energy lightbulb version of the Holy Spirit. From the Web Gallery of Art, of course.

No comments: