A companion in crisis - Book review
Rev.J.N. Manokaran
Reaching out people
#Bookreview: A companion in crisis: A modern paraphrase of John Donne’s devotions. Book by Philip Yancey published by Illumify Media Global, Littleton, Colorado in 2021; Reviewed by J.N. Manokaran

John Donne, one of the greatest poets of England lived during the time when bubonic plague affected London. He served as the Dean of St. Paul’s cathedral. In 1623, he was afflicted by a disease, and during that time he was not allowed to read but permitted to write. He wrote twenty-three meditations as his sickness progressed. The devotions written in the English language in 1600s resembles King James Version. It is difficult to read, hence Philip Yancey has done a yeoman service to Christians by rewriting in simplified English and adding his comments. Thus, this book is for modern readers with thirty devotions. This is a great gift as the world is wounded by Pandemic beyond description. Millions have experienced person loss, family loss, livelihood loss, financial loss… The Guardian selected the one hundred best nonfiction books of all time, John Donne’s Devotions made the list.


The London city was greatly affected by bubonic plague. Three waves of the Great Plague swept through the city. Last wave killed 40000 people. In total one-third of people died, one-third fled the city. The whole neighbourhood looked like a ghost town.

Funeral bells relentlessly tolled each day. Donne felt spiritually drained, helpless and first symptoms of plague appeared on his own body. As he heard funeral bells ring, wondered when his death would be announced through the bell. In his weakness, Donne as a writer meticulously writes about each stage, with reflection and prayer. His writings are in the style of Job: personal, heated, moody and bordering on unstable. Certainly, his journal is timeless and applicable to anyone who faces crisis including illness.

Brief life story

Donne’s father died when he was four years old. As Catholic he was facing discrimination, harassment and persecution. He was fined for attending mass. Because of his religious affiliation he was denied degree in both Cambridge and Oxford. He married Anne More, but her father was against him that he was fired from his job. Donne wrote: “John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done.” For a decade they lived in poverty but had children.

John Donne was converted to the Church of England. At the age of 42 he was ordained as an Anglican Priest. He was mocked as ‘conversion for convenience’. He got Doctor of Divinity from Cambridge. As a priest, he was completely devoted to serve the parish. Within a year of his ordination, his wife Anne died, and he owed not to marry again. He preached in his wife’s funeral from the text: I am the man who has seen affliction. (Lamentation 3:1)

In 1621 he was appointed as priest of St. Paul’s Cathedral. He arose every morning at four a.m. and studied until ten.” He was an eloquent preacher, despite declining population of London, cathedral was crowded with worshippers.


Donne writes: “Variable, and therefore miserable condition of man! This minute I was well, and am ill, this minute.” He experienced sleepless night, boredom, doctors in whispered consultations, the false hope of remission followed by the dread reality of relapse. He considered himself as sailor tossed in sea, could see land for a moment, next wave it disappears. His audience for his book: God Himself.

Surprised by illness

Donne was surprised about his illness as he had a strict diet, plenty of exercise. Now his pulse was checked, urine was examined, and he had fever. He thanked God for allowing suffering that provides spiritual awareness and one of them could lead to death. “God’s hand was the wheel upon which this clay vessel was shaped, and also the urn in which these ashes will be preserved. My dust and ashes form the temple of the Holy Spirit – could marble be more precious?”

Worried about physical fever he wrote: “I never recognize the fever of lust, of envy of ambition, until it’s too late.” Fever amplifies the curse of Genesis 3:19. In sickness, people could feel abandoned. Donne writes: “No, we’re not abandoned. Though I may be a prodigal son, somehow God has chosen not to disown me. After distributing our portion of the inheritance and watching us squander it. God offers us still more.”

This is an interesting insight: “We are God’s tenants here and yet the landlord pays our rent-imagine! God pays us, not yearly, not quarterly but hourly. Every minute, God extends more mercy.” Like Job, Donne pleads: “You delayed judgment of the world for 120 years in Noah’s time. You put up with a rebellious generation of Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness. Won’t you suspend my sentence for one minute?

Diseases that afflicted Job came from Satan’s hands, not yours. “At the same time, Lord, I know that you have led me continually with your own hand and will not correct me with someone else’s. My parents would not give me over to a servant’s correction, not my God’s to Satan’s.” Donne felt if sickness is correction and not anger, then there is hope.

Human posture

Humans could stand erect and upright. Our posture inclines us to contemplate about heaven. “How quickly we fall, though! Adam lay flat upon the ground when God breathed into him the breath of life, and when the time comes to withdraw that breath from us, we prepare by lying flat upon our beds.” It is possible to practice death by lying still but cannot practice resurrection by rising. On sick bed, he thought he was like a child; cannot eat, crawling, childish temper, can’t sit up, and yet hate to go to bed.

Sick bed and solitary confinement

His shepherd’s heart was evident: “You are still active in my congregation but I, their pastor, am locked in solitary confinement.” Friends in the congregation like four friends who brought the crippled man to Jesus, may likewise bring him before the Lord in prayers. “I am prevented from worship. I feel excommunicated, and I yearn for fellowship.” From the grave no one can praise, Donne felt his praise cannot be heard by others. He prayed Lord to redeem the rest of his life, making the memory of sickness, beneficial for him. “You have made this bed your altar; now make me your sacrifice, as you made your Son Christ Jesus.”

Misery of solitude

God made medicine, doctors, and art of healing. “No spiritual health can be had by superstition, not bodily health by magic.” In sickness, its greatest misery is solitude.” If dead are buried, sick are abandoned. Quarantine is like prison sentence, separating from companionship and charity. “Solitude goes against the natural order, for all of God’s actions manifest a love of community.” Quarantine if worse than grave as one could know it and feel it.

Fear, trust and joy

“I study the physician with the same diligence as he studies the disease.” Doctor tries to disguise his fear. Donne was not afraid of death but the progression of the disease. “You command me to both to speak to you and to fear you – don’t those two cancel each other out?” The women seeing the empty tomb was afraid and joy together. Love coexists with fear.

Meaning of illness

As fish on shore wait for next tide, patients lie for the visit of a doctor. Only Luke is with me (II Timothy 4:11) Paul was not content with a physician, needed some more company. Donne prayed: “Open my eyes to the meaning of this illness. When I have read it in the language of correction, allow me to translate it into another, and read it as a mercy. Your mercy or your correction: which of these is the original primary message, and which the translation. I cannot conclude, though death may conclude me.”


“When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, God knew their many grievous sins, but charged them with one: the inward rebellion of murmuring. Secret sins are the most deadly and pernicious.” Rebellious songs, drums do not pose as much threat as a whisper campaign by a few.


In garden of Eden, probably serpent walked upright, could be seen approaching. Now he crawls in stealth and attacks us. As people who are healed relapse into sickness again, people relapse into sins.


“Always in motion, pumping life to all the rest, the heart is the seat of the body’s vitality.” Heart lacks strength, but the first organ in the developing child. “As king of the body, the heart attracts the venom and poison of every pestilential disease, just as the king of nation attracts the malignance of evil men.” There are two kinds of hearts: willing hearts, learned hearts, wise hearts, straight hearts and clean hearts; in contrast stony hearts, hardened. First kind has joy, while the second kind is afraid. Donne wonders: There must be a middle kind of heart, not perfect but mendable in the very act of surrender, and not so soiled as to be rejected. “A melting heart, a troubled heart, a wounded heart, a broken heart, a contrite heart – these I have, thanks to the powerful working of your Spirit.”


“If the very air we breathe might kill us, how can we ever be safe? To be killed by hailstones or by gunshot is one thing – but by breathing in air from another person?” Anyone -a neighbour, a friend, a relative, myself – may be a potential killer.”

Misery and happiness

“Misery we drink, but happiness we merely taste; misery we harvest, and happiness we only glean; in misery we journey while in happiness we barely walk. Misery is undeniable, verifiable; happiness is elusive, hard to pin down.”

Altar and offering

Donne thought his sick bed as altar and he offers himself as sacrifice on it.


“We say that time divides into three parts: past, present, and future. But the past has already disappeared, the future doesn’t yet exist, and the present is so fleeting that as soon as you say the word it has joined the past.” Celebrities today will be forgotten by next generation. Reflecting on eternity: From then on, he need not number my days anymore. He will live for evermore.


“Sleep has a double benefit: it renews the body in this life and prepares the soul for the next. In the very act of rejuvenating us, sleep prefigures death.” Sleep gives good rest, but a risk that may not wake up after sleep. “As we need sleep to live out our span on earth, so we need death to enter in eternity that we can’t outlive.”

Jonah slept during one horrific storm and Lord Jesus in another. Donne laments he is unable to sleep.

The Funeral bell

“God holds the power of death in his own hands, lest anyone should bribe death. If we knew the gain of death, the ease of death, we might try to assist it, speed it along.” An interesting observation: “In the Old Testament, you sanctioned first the calling of the assembly by the sound of the trumpet, and then their gathering by the sound of the bells worn by the priests. Now, the order is reversed; at death we enter the communion of saints accompanied by the sound of bells, and someday our bodily resurrection will take place with the sound of trumpets. Secular authorities use trumpets too, but bells are reserved for the sacred.”

Funeral bells help a person to introspect. “Therefore, never ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for you, and for me.”

Tribulation as treasure?

“If I carry my treasure as a lump of gold, not currency, it won’t help defray my expenses as I travel. Similarly, tribulation is a kind of treasure, not very useful until the time we get nearer and nearer our home in heaven.”

Donne warns believers: “I find in my life reasons for gratitude. And if we do not find joys in our sorrow, and glory in our dejections in this world, we may risk missing both in the next.” It is good to gain possession of a better estate after a life of death.

Cross and resurrection

Donne prays: “You present death as the cure of my disease, not its triumph.” Donne thinks that human life an active death. “Time will be swallowed up in eternity, and hope swallowed in consummation, and ends swallowed in infinity, and all those ordained to salvation will be one everlasting sacrifice to you, where you may receive delight from them, and they glory from you, for evermore. Amen.”

Nature and sickness

“A disease runs by its own rules – discordant, irregular, rebellious, beyond our control. In contrast, nature proceeds in an orderly and predictable way…A pregnant woman can’t postpone her delivery from the ninth to the tenth month for the sake of convenience; neither can queen speed it up to the seventh month. Orderly nature won’t allow such exceptions.” Donne wonders, how to fight disease.

Doctors are like an ark in the midst of flood. Doctors decide to purge and starve Donne’s digestive system. Human misery is the very treatment makes a patient sicker.

Faith and works

God looks upon our hearts, also work of our hands. “My God, you are a God of order, but not of ambition and competition. When will you put an end to the contentious quarrels over which has priority: faith or works? A healthy human body requires both the head and the hand; a functioning government requires bot counsel and action; and a truly spiritual person needs to demonstrate both faith and works.”

God speaks

Donne writes: Lord need your thunder, not music. “You proclaimed the Ten Commandments, Moses said, in a loud voice to your whole assembly (Deuteronomy 5:22)”

Dilapidated house

Sick body is described by Donne: “On any day the dilapidated house may collapse, and diseases grow in the body like weeds overspreading the ground. As weeds cover not only every patch of turf but every stone too, so disease infects not only every muscle but every bone.”

Sin for others

There is a tendency to sin against God by pleasing others. Adam sinned for Eve. King Solomon sinned to gratify his wives. Pilate and Herod sinned to please the crowd.


With relapse comes guilt and self-accusation. Reoccurrence is swift. But because of experience, the person knows exactly what to fear. Falling again to sin is like relapse into sickness. “For Israel, today’s murmuring became tomorrow’s idolatry and they frequently relapsed into both.” Sin reveals itself in other forms. “When one sin dies, it transmigrates into another.”


Crisis in Donne’s illness: the crisis of fear, the crisis of meaning and final crisis death. “For Donne death loomed as the great enemy to be resisted, not a friend to be welcomed as a normal part of life’s cycle.” Donne could understand that Lord Jesus death was to effect a cure.

Philip Yancey writes: “A turning point came for Donne as he began to view death not as the disease that permanently spoils life, rather as the only cure to the disease of life, the final stage in the journey that brings us to God. Evil infects all of life on this fallen planet, and only through death – Christ’s death and our own – can we realize a cured state.”


Donne had fever like typhus, not bubonic plague, survived and served for eight years as dean of St. Pauls. Through sickness, Donne developed a ‘Holy indifference’ to death.

Another illness

“Seven years after the illness that inspired Devotions, Donne suffered another illness, which would severely test all that he had learned about pain. He spent most of the winter of 1630 out of the pulpit, confined to a house in Essex.” Donne travelled to London to deliver on the first Friday of Lent… looked much older than fifty-eight years.

Do these bones live? Was his last sermon. Donne had preached prophetically his own Funeral Sermon. Donne often expressed his desire to die in the pulpit.

Viktor Frankl said: Despair is suffering without meaning. C.S. Lewis: Suffering is not a problem to be solved but a burden to be borne. Philip Yancey writes: “Theologians in Europe debated for four centuries God’s message in the Great Plague, yet in the end a little rat poison silenced all their speculation.”

Philip Yancey observes: “He began with prayers that the pain be removed; he ends with prayers that the pain be redeemed, that he be ‘catechized by affliction.’ Such redemption might take the form of miraculous cure-he still hoped so-but even if it did not, God could take a crude lump and through the refiner’s fire of suffering make of it pure gold.”

Compassion, No Blame

May times, there is a tendency to ‘piously blame the victims for bringing about that tragedy. “We live on an imperfect, broken planet that displeases God as much as it displeases us.” Lord Jesus Christ in the gospels: “Always, without exception, he responds with comfort and healing. Never does he blame the victim or philosophize about the cause.” Need of the hour is Mission of comfort and healing: God is Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. (II Corinthians 1:3-4)

From Fear To Trust

Donne wondered if God was participating in the quarantine. God must grant a proper kind of Fear that would supplant all other fears. Who caused this illness? Plague? Why? Donne found no answer for these questions. “The meditations move ever so gradually toward the question of response, the defining issue that confronts every person who suffers. Will I trust God with my crisis, and the fear it provokes? Or will I turn away from God in bitterness and anger?” Donne decides whether it is natural or chastisement: “In either case he would trust God, for in the end trust represents the proper fear of the Lord.”

Three-day pattern

Philip Yancey rightly concludes: “But the three-day pattern – Friday’s tragedy, Saturday’s despair, Sunday’s triumph-became for Jesus’ followers a pattern that can be applied to all our times of tribulation.”

Helpful book

This is a helpful book for all Christians, especially for those who are serving in the midst of pandemic and lockdown.

- J.N. Manokaran






Rev.Manokaran is a gifted Bible Teacher who regularly organizes and conducts programmes and Workshops for Pastors and Chruch Leaders. He could be reached at jnmanokaran@gmail.com.