“Death Be Not Proud” (A Few Words for Wednesday)

I interviewed a devoutly Catholic man yesterday for non-Catholic reasons. He told me that for people like him and me, both nearer 60 than 50, each day boils down to “a choice between Dunkirk and the Alamo.” When you get into a situation, there are two outcomes: You get your boats off the beach and live to fight another day, as at Dunkirk; or you make your last stand, as at the Alamo. Meaning, we’re getting near the end of the line, and now it’s only a question of, How long?

Then he said, “Of course, we Catholics know that there is a final destination, and that makes all the difference,” or words to that effect. (He said all of this with much saltier language. I have never met a Catholic more at home with profanity.)

All of this made me think of the line “Death be not proud,” which I first encountered as the title of a memoir by John Gunther about his son’s early death from, I think it was, a brain tumor. We read the book in 7th grade, or maybe 8th, and it made an impression.

Where does the line come from? My sister Elizabeth, the English scholar in the family, would know, because it comes from her favorite poet, John Donne (pictured). Here is Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10. It’s worth a second reading for any Catholic.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou thinks’t, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

  • Anonymous

    Another lovely Donne reflection: "No man is an island, entire of itself; everyman is a piece of the continent, a part of themain. If a clod be washed away by the sea,Europe is the less, as well as if a promontorywere, as well as if a manor of thy friend's orof thine own were: any man's death diminishesme, because I am involved in mankind, andtherefore never send to know for whom the bellstolls; it tolls for thee."John DonneDevotions uponEmergent Occasions, no. 17(Meditation)1624 (published)

  • Maria

    Oh dear. I am 55 and now I am at the end of the line? Yikes…

  • Warren Jewell

    Oh, Webster, Maria, take it from one farther along – it can be so sweet to see the end of that long pilgrim's road. For, even as His Way stays a steady pace even when it courses toward Calvary, it is now onward, upward, Him-ward and life-ward. Yes, you cannot make Him out yet, in the distance. But you can feel His elation at seeing you. He leads on, Cross on His back. He walks along side, His joy at being so close to Home contagious. He takes His time behind, looking down the path for brothers and sisters to bless. And, if I fall, His sturdy frame joins mine to lift my cross under me again, and on we go.And, oh, the thrill to be so close to the end here, the beginning-with-no-end there.

  • Mary P.

    Warren, thank you. Wow.I hope I have your wonderful sense of courage and faith when I need it!

  • Michael

    Wonderful to read this poetry: Reminds me of the German poet Goethe's "Faust", which I had prescribed at High School. Mephistopheles, the devil, no hard he tried to destroy with his evil schemes, the outcome of his evil designs was always positive – totally the opposite of what he wanted to achieve.The state of fear of death or dread is a human emotion and I cannot be critical of anyone who, in the winter of their life, are afraid of what might await them on the Other Side, their religious convictions notwithstanding. So it was quite something when I heard the testimony of a young Christian man and now Pastor, who once had been declared clinically dead – only to re-awaken 20 minutes after his "death" and the story he had to tell:(Much abbreviated)He was a tall, bronzed and blonde young surfer, full of the zest for life, full of confidence and surfing the world's oceans, with no care in the world and one of the "great unwashed", as far as any relationship with Our Lord was concerned.Diving without protective scuba gear off the coast of Madagascar one night, he was stung eleven times by Box Jellyfish. Usually one sting is fatal – he had 11 doses. Getting him to a hospital was an absolute nightmare. Somehow a derelict ambulance was found (Madagascar is Third World) and was carting him to the nearest medical facility. With sudden clarity Ian, that was the young man's name, knew that he was dying and he knew how distraught his single parent mother would be, as he had never been converted. He also knew that perhaps he should pray. He vaguely remembered that there was something like the Lord's Prayer, but he didn't know the words anyway…Then, through the fog of pain he heard a discarnate voice (he was alone in the back of a dark ambulance)addressing him and saying – Repeat after me! And the voice prompted to him the Lord's Prayer and he repeated it.In the end Ian died on the operating table. Where one sting of a Box Jellyfish was fatal, eleven of them even more so.(I heard Ian tell his story in person.)He remembered standing in a very dark place. There was a presence he could not define, but it boded ill. Becoming disorientated and afraid, he suddenly noticed a light far above him, as if shining down into a deep well. At the same time he felt a gravitational pull upwards. As he was being lifted, there were these arms, stretching from within the dark walls of the well, trying to rip him back into the darkness.Then suddenly he stood in a place that was light and it was as if he was standing in a room with white, diffused curling smoke – and in the far corner sat, what he thought , a man – a man in brilliant white light, so bright that he could not see his face. In an instant he just knew, he knew: This is Jesus! Jesus spoke to him and said (if I remember this all correctly) you died prematurely, but I will give you a choice to go back. I will show you Heaven first. With that he parted the veil and Ian saw, as if through the entrance of a cave, into a world of such radiant beauty, lush greens, azure blues, grass soft to his feet that he thought “This is the place I was born to be in, this is where I am supposed to be!!The he remembered his mother and thought of the anguish she would be in, knowing he had died without accepting Our Lord that he said to Jesus he had to return. With that he felt a pull and it was dark…it was the blanket hospital staff pulls over the face of a deceased…Ian is now a Pastor who tells his story to the world: His encounter with Jesus waiting for him, and the radiant beauty of Heaven.I was thinking: I can't wait to behold what Ian saw – to be in that place. So, fear not – he has prepared a place for us in His Father’s house, and if Ian’s testimony is anything to go by…Death where is Thy sting?