Dying and living with contradictory convictions

by Ken Howcroft.

There is a beautiful prayer at the end of some of the funeral services in The Methodist Worship Book (1999) (eg para 19E on p. 459).

Bring us, Lord our God,
at our last awakening,
into the house and gate of heaven,
to enter into that gate,
and dwell in that house,
where there shall be
no darkness nor dazzling,
but one equal light;
no noise nor silence,
but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes,
but one equal possession;
no ends nor beginnings,
but one equal eternity;
in the habitation of your glory and dominion,
world without end. Amen.

That prayer is based on a section of a sermon preached by John Donne in Whitehall on 29 February 1628. The text reads   

… They shall awake as Jacob did, and say as Jacob said Surely the Lord is in this place and this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven, And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no Cloud nor Sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and identity, no ends nor beginnings but one equal eternity…

So far as I can discover it was edited into a prayer by the Anglican Eric Milner-White, who also developed the service of Nine Lessons and Carols for King’s College, Christmas. It appears in number 59 of the fourth edition of After the Third Collect (Mowbray, 1952) which he edited. The Worship Book seems to take over this version directly.

The opening and closing phrases of the prayer have clearly been introduced to turn Donne’s phrases into a prayer. What interests me though is one phrase of Donne’s that Milner-White and therefore the Worship Book omit, “no friends or foes but one equal communion and identity”. Was that considered wrong or simply unsuitable because it made people feel too uncomfortable?

All of Donne’s images seem to be saying that God’s love or ‘heaven’ holds together what we might call binary opposites or contradictory convictions and experiences in a way that makes them complementary to each other and eventually transcends them. But if that is what God’s love is like, we cannot leave it all to whatever we imagine happens as and after we die. If Jesus embodies or incarnates what this love of God is like in his earthly ministry and in his death and resurrection, so as we are drawn into becoming his body here on earth and start to develop ‘his mind in us’, we ought to be practicing and modelling it so far as we are able in our lives and in the life of the world around us. Doing so is much needed in a time when problems resulting from climate change, war, migration, poverty seem to be symptoms of an increasingly broken and fragmenting world; a time when all conversation about them is politicised and then polarised and reduced to wars of personality cults; and a time when even the life of churches is more absorbed by conflict within each denomination than differences between them.

Do we have to learn again how to stand for truth and at the same time love those who do not see truth as we do? Do we have to relearn how to love both friend and foe alike, recognising that God loves them both, and also recognising that love means being open to perceive God in them all, to celebrate God in them all, and to receive from God through them all? As we hold both friend and foe together, and allow ourselves to be transformed and transcended with them, we shall discover, says Donne, an equal communion and identity. This is the only example he gives which has a double emphasis. It is about how the one and the many belong together. We live in a world where everything, including faith, is increasingly individualised, privatised and interiorised. That potentially skews any thinking about ‘identity’. Amongst the most radical statements in God in Love Unites Us were the opening ones that God has made us (in God’s image) to be in relationships (to relate to God and to relate to others) and to relate as sexual beings (including aspects of sex, gender and sexuality). So we find our identity in and through communion, including the communion of saints.

4 thoughts on “Dying and living with contradictory convictions”

  1. Thank you Ken for presenting us with these wonderful words! For me that last paragraph and the words “no friends or foes but one equal communion and identity” reflected the sense of the universal nature of God’s love for all people. I found the same ideas in “The Universal Christ” by Richard Rohr. This makes sense, but could we go further and cast doubt on the idea of individual salvation, individual piety, religious contemplative practices, redemption and atonement, in fact any suggestion that we can have an individual relationship with God?


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