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  • Ecstatic Donne:Conscience, Sin, and Surprise in the Sermons and the Mitcham Letters
  • Gary Kuchar

Be you and I behind an arras then. Mark the encounter.

—Polonius, Hamlet

When John Donne describes the effects of a well-delivered sermon in a 1620 address at Lincoln's Inn, he exploits the way in which conscience is generally thought, in Reformation theology, to be an agency rather than an act. The rhetorical power of his description of a good sermon relies, that is, on the Protestant view that conscience is a voice of judgment that speaks to us, rather than a rational process that is conducted by us—as in most forms of scholastic thought.1 According to Donne, "It is not the depth, nor the wit, nor the eloquence of the Preacher that pierces us, but his nearenesse; that hee speaks to my conscience, as though he had been behinde the hangings when I sinned, and as though he had read the book of the day of Judgement already" (Sermons, 3.5.142).2 The rhetorical force and spiritual meaningfulness of Donne's nearness effect both rest on the Protestant view that conscience is as an agency of judgment within the soul that produces knowledge of one's actions, rather than being a name for such knowledge itself. Exploiting this Reformed view of conscience as a distinct power (virtus) of the soul, Donne says, in effect, that the preacher should speak in a voice that is intimate enough with me to know my most disavowed secrets, but other enough from me to shock me by revealing them: the preacher, that is, should pierce my conscience by speaking as though he were my conscience. For Donne, the power of fascination a preacher possesses is directly proportional to his ability to get auditors to feel as well as understand the shock of surprise attendant upon an encounter with one's conscience as God's witness within the soul. [End Page 631]

By identifying how Donne shows rather than merely tells us about the nearness effect in his sermons and letters, we will see how he conveys conscience as an ecstatic phenomenon that is crucial to both Jacobean pulpit oratory and the early modern experience of Protestant faith more generally. In this context, ecstatic should not be understood as implying anything mystical in the sense we use the term in relation to contemplative or nonconformist traditions; rather, it refers to the way that conscience can feel other to me in the sense that it can speak to me even if I don't want it to, even if its speaking is not willed by me.3 In the Reformation context of sin and conscience informing Donne's sermons, then, ecstatic experiences refer to phenomena that happen to me but feel as though they are somehow not proper to me as such. Because the ecstatic experience of hearing one's conscience against one's own intention is crucial to how Donne understands the role of a preacher and the experience of faith per se, it informs both the rhetorical structure and thematic itinerary of many individual sermons, as well as some of Donne's most compelling private letters.

The Sermons

The scenario of the lurking preacher from the 1620 Lincoln's Inn address is a case in point. Donne's description of how a good sermon should affect us is an unusually evocative articulation of the general idea that preachers should "bind," "touch," "pierce," or "move" the conscience.4 To express the sensation of having one's conscience bound, Donne presents the preacher's gaze both spatially, through the image of the witness behind the hangings, and temporally, through the perception that the preacher is privy to the Book of Judgment. By doing so, Donne expresses his hope that auditors will experience his voice according to three temporalities: one emanating from the disavowed moment of transgression in the past; one experienced in the shocking immediacy of the present—in the time of the sermon itself; and one looking back from the day of judgment in the eschatological future. In this way, the voice of the preacher is designed to produce the sort of guilt Martin...


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