A Companion in Crisis by Philip Yancey
Yancey enables the reader to access John Donne’s thoughts in more contemporary English, and this, coupled with his own perceptions, helps us to ponder on what it means to both live and die well
A Companion in Crisis - A Modern Paraphrase of John Donne's Devotions
By Philip Yancey
Darton Longman and Todd
Reviewed by Martin Poole
Philip Yancey is once again delving into the mystery of suffering. A theme that runs through most of his writings but nonetheless always brings helpful new insights to consider. This time he calls the reader to journey with the 17th century poet John Donne who kept a journal of his own battle with, what doctors of the day, diagnosed as the bubonic plague.
This pandemic ravaged the land and was the cause of the death of many of the congregation at St Paul’s where Donne served as Dean. Each demise was marked by a clanging bell and gives the context behind Donne’s most famous words – “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” – as he foresaw in each dull tone his own approaching death. He did in fact make a recovery but not without enduring immense suffering.
So here we have a devout man being subjected to all sorts of medical “cures” long since abandoned by the NHS and sharing deeply his fears, doubts and triumphs. Yancey has already given a short appreciation of John Donne’s life in his earlier book Soul Survivor but now he is engaging with the source material of Donne’s own writing, enabling the reader to access Donne’s thoughts in more contemporary English.
Apart from updating the language Yancey helpfully divides the material into 30 segments encouraging the reader to work steadily through the book in a period of a month rather than risk being overwhelmed by every twist and turn of Donne’s often gloomy fight.
We see moments of elation as the illness subsides, only to see hopes dashed as remission gives way to relapse. Melancholy often surfaces in doubts expressed during intense moments as Donne picks up the apostle Paul’s fears – when I have preached to others, I myself should be cast away.
A Companion in Crisis was prompted by Yancey’s own reflections on Covid and the devastating swathe of sickness and death that it carved through the global community. Metaphorically bells were tolling everywhere and few escaped being affected in some way, either through bereavement or succumbing to the virus. Donne’s writings coupled with Yancey’s perceptions help the reader to ponder on what it means to both live and die well.
A sombre but powerful read especially for those seeking to “fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith. (2 Tim 4:7)
The Revd Martin Poole is a retired Baptist minister