I must have been a college student when I had to memorise a sonnet by John Donne for my English class. I chose Sonnet 10, “Death Be Not Proud” and although so well known, it is worth reading again:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Memorisation was part of my family background in a Bible-based Evangelical home in America. It was the King James version for us and, like John Donne’s, the sonorous tones and cadences were drummed into our minds as we memorised verses from the Good Book.
Memorisation is a worthy and now lost discipline. I reckon it helped me as a writer. I still feel the rhythms and patterns of the Jacobean language thundering through and resonating as I write.
It was on a high-speed train journey from Rome to Turin in 2015 that Donne’s verses echoed in my mind. I was travelling with a friend to venerate the Holy Shroud of Turin. I never cared much for the scepticism about the Shroud. To my mind and heart it has always been authentic and I have always believed it to be not a relic of the Crucifixion so much as a relic of the Resurrection.
Indeed, the latest research suggests that the mysterious image on the linen could only have been produced by a super high-intensity blast of ultraviolet light millions of times more intense than any technology that can be produced in our modern world. I believe that blast was the radiant power of Christ’s Resurrection and that the Shroud, with its famous negative image of the crucified Lord, is essentially photographic proof of the Resurrection.
Furthermore, I don’t mind if doubters double over in laughter and cynics sneer. I don’t mind being mocked by those who wouldn’t believe even if the Almighty himself invited them to dinner. To tell the truth, I would rather be guilty of believing too much than too little.
So off to Turin I went. We had tickets for an early viewing of the Shroud and at seven o’clock on a bright summer morning we hurried off to the cathedral rather like the Apostles running to the tomb. We wanted to beat the queues, and so we were among the first to enter the darkened room, where we watched a short film about the Shroud with 30 other pilgrims. Then we were ushered into a space to stand before it. I edged into the front row and stood just a few feet from the relic – gazing at the ghostly image of the crucified – and I was overcome with emotion.
I was convinced of what I already believed. Here on the cloth was the reason why death could not be proud. Here before my eyes was the reason death had died.
After about 10 minutes we had to move on to make room for the next small group of pilgrims. The cathedral was open though, and it was possible to cross the piazza and enter the West doors and sit in the nave and still see the shroud on display. So we went and sat and prayed and thought for a bit longer.
Was this really the winding cloth of Christ? Was the image really singed onto the cloth with a burst of radiant supernatural light? What about the carbon tests dating it to the 14th century? What about the lost years when for centuries no one is exactly sure where the cloth was hidden? What about the many people who ignore or disregard this artefact which is so important to me? There is an answer. Where there is still room for doubt there is still room for faith. I reckoned God is a gentleman, and even if He has the proof He will hold back out of good manners – respecting our free will and not wishing to force us in any way.
A few months later, my visit to Turin inspired this poem, and as you read it you may notice not only the little pilgrimage I have described, but also how it was done in homage to John Donne.
I tried to lay aside the arguments
and just view the evidence before me.
Of course the case for authenticity
matters, but direct experience
is where reality and theory meet.
We stood silently in the darkened room:
thirty strangers – all travellers far from home
drawn to an ancient linen winding sheet
singed with the image of a tortured man.
As fragile as the portrait of a ghost
sketched by light it seemed. Suddenly I’m lost.
The bloodstains, the wounds, the face – I’m shaken
by the violent tenderness of the sight.
Full of dread, I’m un-mightied by the shroud.
Like death I kneel; like death, I can’t be proud.
Done, I rise into the morning, clean and white.
Fr Dwight Longenecker is the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Read his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com
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