Devotions are exercises of the mind and heart and spirit which are proper to, and at the same time attempt small repayment to, God for his bounty towards us, his gifts, and his general care of us.
In the course of doing devotions a man or a woman consider themselves small and humble, modest and unassuming before the great and loving care lavished on them and which s/he is acknowledging being gifted by God.
A Holy Sonnet by John Donne, Dean of St Pauls in the time of James I, begins thus:
“As due by many titles I resign myself to thee, O, God”
Hardly better expressed anywhere other than in this opening line of Donne’s Sonnet is devotion disposed. I do not want to get sidetracked and immersed in literary criticism instead of sticking to my topic of devotions; however I do want to unpack for you before I move on, some of the marvellous conciseness and preciseness in John Donne’s opening line hereabove.
Then I shall be going on to look into the word ‘Devotion’ itself, so as to attempt to get to the kernel of its fuller meaning; for Christians in the first place; and in the second place for those persons who are at all stirred by the meaning and application of the word in any serious sense.
The Sonnet begins: ‘As due….’ And indeed it is our due as being our debt which we are obliged to mark, even though we are unable to repay it in any substantial way; we are at the least, like the one leper amongst the ten who were cured, required by all human and divine rubrics to acknowledge its existence to God; and even also to acknowledge to God that we are unable to repay him for his graciousness towards us.
This ‘As due…’ is also God’s due expectation from ourselves, as him being the agency to whom all our life and existential debt is due; for God is indeed by all means allowed to be expectant of each of us, for us to acknowledge him and our unpayable debt to him.
More than merely acknowledgments indeed; also we are to give thanks and praises to him for allowing us to, as it were, have borrowed so much from him without his having any hope or even expectation of a return of a same or similar repayment of goods and advantages; neither in quantity nor in their quality.
To our great advantage in us realising in our hearts and imaginatively in our minds the fact of this ‘As due……..’, the fact of this debt we owe and cannot repay, and also of the fact of there being only one possible proper response of ours, which is to be expected of us by God, and to be had by him from us, and conversely which expected by ourselves to be offered by us, and in fact given by us, which is that response of our giving our gratitude thanks and praise to God; and all this situation in its full array here thus sets out as best as we are able to apprehend, what the ground, the terra firma, of what is a true relationship with God we are able to obtain.
Thus we should begin our thanks praises and show our gratitude to God, whenever we pray or when we send a thank offering to God, with John Donne’s own beginning cuing us in our minds…..’As due….’
‘As due by many titles….’ Many titles: There is a book I have seen called ‘The God of a Thousand Names’ and another called ‘The Names of God’ both of which books are in fact lists of the names and titles of God as taken from Scripture: Lord, Adonai, Emmanuel, Jehovah, Eloihim and so on, and also ‘Preserver’ and ‘Protector’ and ‘Saviour’ and ‘The Most High’ and ‘The Almighty’ and many, many more titles.
These then are some of the ‘many titles’ John Donne invokes in his opening line of his Holy Sonnet to God.
There are more ‘titles’. As well as invoking a string of descriptive and laudatory names by which God has made himself known to us; this word ‘titles’ also invokes the fact of ‘entitlement’; the fact that God above all is others entitled to receive our praise and love and thanks and gratitude. In John Donne’s lifetime there was still a very much better connection in everyone’s minds between the words ‘title’ and ‘entitlement’. It was an age in which aristocracy, and royalty, ruled the nation of Britain; a monarch ruled not merely as a nominal sovereign as does our Queen Elizabeth II nowadays; but rigorously and personally by edict and law and by rule, taxation and regulation. Together the Crown and the Crown’s advisors, the Lords and Ladies the Dukes and Marquises, knights and so on, being of the aristocratic class, were the effectual and actual government.
As a unit they formed The Royal Court, and the aristocrats were courtiers, advisors and supporters of the King. The Royal Court then was the highest law court also – hence the use of the word ‘court’ in our times to mean a law court. In John Donne’s times then ‘entitlement’ meant very much also ‘bearing a title’ such as ‘Lord’ or ‘Baroness’ etc. To be or to become ‘entitled’ was for a person to inherit an aristocratic legacy from one’s family who had held that same ‘entitlement’ beforehand; or else for one to be raise to the ranks of the aristocracy as reward for one’s services to the King and his Court.
Thus the idea of Royalty, of aristocracy, and of ‘entitlement’ is being applied to God by John Donne in his Sonnet; just as the Bible itself is translated so as to give royal and other high titles to God in its attempt to explain a little to us of how great and elevated God is, beyond our kens. Thus in the Bible as we have it in English Jesus is called ‘King of the Jews’ and Jehovah is said to be ‘the ruler of the peoples’.
Thus, ‘As due by many titles……..’
‘As due by many titles I resign myself to thee, O God’
‘Resign’ is immensely a meaning-packed word in this first line of this Sonnet. Is it a ‘re-signature’ and so a statement of recommitting oneself to God; just as when a person signs a pledge to abstain from alcohol or to support a good cause in a petition; the same person might at some later time ‘re-sign’ the pledge originally made; either because s/he feels s/he has slipped away from the original commitment a little, or else because s/he wants to affirm and re-emphasise her/his commitment again; just as some married couples remarry together again, or else renew their vows.
It is re-sign then, either as a re-affirmation or as a re-commitment. It is also a ‘resignation’ in the sense that John Donne is handing himself and his life and its tasks and offices into the hands of his God as he is writing this first line of his Sonnet. A Christian understands that God claims him or her self utterly; all-consumingly; without reserve or remainders; that to live the life God asks of us and requires us to live, is to live, in the words of another poet named T S Eliot us understanding that God is ‘requiring not less than everything’ from us.
John Donne is not resigning, giving up or giving over his responsibility to and accountability before God to God; he is not in effect ‘absolving himself’ of any need for penitence or chastisement from God, by way of handing over his peccadilloes like a small child asks her father or mother to tie her shoelaces for her, or to make an excuse for her to another person. Indeed it is the very fact of John Donne’s understanding that he has to face his God, and in facing him he is baring, and has to bare, and has to bear, showing to God his fully human fully fallible self ‘warts and all’; it is this fact of having ‘surrendered everything’ which concerns individual private ego and self-assurance, which has impelled John Donne to offer to ‘resign’ himself to God, in the sense in which he is ‘throwing himself on the mercy of God’ so that, he hopes, his God will be true to his Holy Nature and so forgive and absolve John Donne of his included surrendered-for-examination sins.
Say over aloud the first line of the Sonnet here right now; and notice how it reads as if it is being spoken by the poet Donne. It is conversational; as is the best of prayer, and there is moreover a natural and heavy fall of emphasis and tone on the word ‘resign’ as one speaks the line. The line begins with a clause ‘As due..’ which is wholly referential to the second clause in the line, the second clause being that one beginning ‘I resign’. It is as if the whole thrust of the line is headed solely and wholly towards making its precise point of emphasis on the words ‘I resign myself ‘; and it seems that John Donne was feeling that he was utterly unable to approach God in any other way than by humbling himself and thus throwing this humbled self on God and asking for audience and a hearing.
‘As due by many titles I resign myself to thee, O God’
As Malachi says of God:
‘And who shall abide the day of his coming; and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire’
Yet this single first line of the Sonnet, as one reads it uplifts itself again joyously, even triumphantly, on the sound of the words ‘to thee’ when they are spoken; whereabouts upon which the line comes to an abrupt rest and stops for a pause. The words ‘O, God’ are then added so to complete the line. Of course this ‘thee’ is God himself; who is the object of the poet’s Sonnet and of all his thought; God who is at once the Great Judge and also the Great Comforter of each human life and individual; who is God without whom we cannot live and also God beside whom we cannot bear to endure, but instead we are ever placing distance between ourselves and him.
The final two words of John Donne’s Sonnet line ‘O, God’ are expressive. They express a sense of relief in the line and coming from the poet. As if John Donne had in some sense had finally been assured he had ‘made contact’ in some way with his God, and that God has not cast him off; and so suddenly the poet is feeling more secure because having received some assurance, so that he is able now to be offering up to God an expression of sheer praise, as if he had said in the final instance ‘O, mighty God, my God!’
I spend so long on a single line of verse because I do believe that that single line of verse I have spent so long on says so much about our subject; about what devotion is. The line carries literal meaning along with it holding psychological meaning and also it carries a rich emotional expression; all these types of meaning acting in sum as it were to ‘tee us up’ as listeners, as eavesdroppers, on the poet, upon John Donne’s intimate, lowly and humble conversation with, prayer to, his God. This opening line of the Sonnet as a whole says so much about how we as Christians best prepare ourselves so as to make our approaches God in a right frame of mind. The line of the Sonnet in short tells us how to frame our devotions to God.
Now consider the word ‘devotion’. ‘Devotion’ means rather more than merely giving ourselves to a project or to a person. Any employee gives her/himself to projects, to employers; very few employees are actually able to say truthfully that they are ‘devoted to’ or have ‘devoted themselves to’ their employers. ‘Devotion’ brings to life in its meaning and expression something of the intimate, the personal, a daring to be revealing of oneself in such a way that one cares not to do so or dares not to do so, in the normal course of life and to any Tom, Dick or Harry. Devotion is associated in our minds with deep committals such as plightings of troths and wedding vows, affianced engagements; or else it is associated in times of crisis and stress with men and women pledging themselves in extremis to be there for one another, or even to revenge a person or to be revenged upon a person.
Devotion in this latter sense of pledging revenge is of course a negative and destructive devotion; not only towards any intended culprit/victim; but yet also towards the mind and spirit of him/her who contemplates and enacts such revenges. But let this go for now.
Devotion then involves more of our person than a simple deal or favour to, or for one another. Older words spring to mind in its parcelling-out; words like ‘fealty’ and ‘covenant’ and ‘swearing of oaths’ and ‘conjoinings by bond’. Our 21st century language fails to meet the demands of descriptive power which such a word as devotion places upon it. Our 21st century language has been pretty-well washed, wrung, spun, and hung out to dry, is all sanitised antibacterial hypoallergenic and generally chloroformed; we cannot cope with a depth of meaning, of authenticity and sincerity.
(Hence it happens that those devotionals; being those books of strong meat; which the writers known as The Reformation Divines of England and Scotland wrote during the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries, are now so hard to find and are now so hard to find being read by people. These devotional writings have been called the products of The Golden Age of spiritual writing; and so indeed they are.)
This word ‘Devotion’ also carries within its meaning and usage a sense of singleness of purpose; an air of having separated oneself out from other pursuits and/or allegiances; or rather, of having been separated out from pursuit of other trajectories; so that there is an element of compulsion here similar that drawing-power sensed by Coleridge in his poem, The Ancient Mariner, and which likewise grasps its hold on us when we become consumed in the fires of devotion;
He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off ! unhand me, grey-beard loon !’
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.
He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child :
The Mariner hath his will.
The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone :
He cannot choose but hear ;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.’
‘Devotion’ then is a form of ‘possession’; of giving-up oneself, of surrendering oneself to a larger more compelling imperative than those which describe common life; than such things as cars, fame, position, wealth: these are things not objects of true devotion, because ultimately their targets are reflexive and thus in the end they always refer themselves back to the seeker after them and to his/her appetites. One is unable to ‘lose oneself sacrificially’ in one’s own cravings of ego.
And ‘sacrifice’ is indeed a part of devotion; the surrender to a greater good of a higher order;
“Greater love hath no man than this: to lay down his life for a friend”
And of course this is simply and truly what Our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us, we his friends, whom he loved as friends even beforehand and whilst we were at enmity with him
“It is rare indeed for anyone to die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”