Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mining for Gold

I've thought much lately of the effect of one man's sorrows on his friends. This happens so often among us, that we overlook it. And John Donne's "Meditation 17" washes back into my mind again and again. You certainly have heard the famous words from that brief text: "No man is an island, entire of itself." He speaks of our dependency on one another, and since Donne was a man of the church, he is referring to how the members of the church body are inextricably connected.

But the point of connection is his topic: we are connected through sorrows. One man's sorrows can be utilized by others for their benefit:

"Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction."

Well enough. We know that sorrow can change and improve us, if we humbly accept it. But, another man's sorrow, become my treasure? How does that work? Donne describes hearing the death bell tolling in the street, indicating someone's impending death:

"Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security."

Hard and callous as this assertion may be, it is true. Learning from others' misery is an important skill to acquire. Mining the bullion from their sorrow, and turning it into useful spiritual currency is, Donne asserts, a way of redeeming it, even if the sufferer himself gains no benefit.

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