(Note: I wrote this post as a devotional for the Sanctuary Choir at Manassas Baptist Church. The choir doesn’t rehearse or sing in services during the month of July.)1 Thessalonians 4:13: Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.
I don’t know if you have run across the word “valediction” lately. It’s not used a lot: in fact, I can think of only one occasion in John Donne’s famous poem, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” If you haven’t heard of it or don’t know what it means, it doesn’t matter a whole lot. It doesn’t come up in casual conversation a lot. And while I have a general idea of its meaning, I had to look up a precise definition. Basically, it consists of words of farewell, but here’s the complete definition:
A valediction (derived from the Latin vale dicere, “to say farewell”) or complimentary close in American English as an expression used to say farewell, especially a word or phrase used to end a letter or message, or the act of saying parting words whether brief or extensive.
Alternatively, valediction can refer to the final prayers and remarks at the graveside before burial given by the presiding priest, after the Mass and the rite of Final Commendation, during a Roman Catholic Funeral Service.
John Donne’s poem is on the “extensive” side. I won’t read it in the interests of time, but I’ve made copies for you to have if you’d like. It’s a so-called “metaphysical” poem, and one of the characteristics of this poetry is that it is very dense. It would take us half and hour to go over it. In my graduate seminar in seventeenth century poetry, we spent three hours talking about the poem and its meaning. But then, graduate students in English are different from you and me. Well, maybe I have a lot in common with them since I was one once. But I haven’t forgotten what I learned about the poem, largely because I inflicted it on thousands of seniors in my English class. Most of them are none the worse for the experience.
Anyhow, briefly, Donne wrote them poem when he was about to undertake a trip to France and would be separated from his wife Anne for several months. In the poem, he reminds her that they are not only one physically as husband and wife, but also spiritually. In a famous metaphor, he compares this spiritual connection to gold, which is almost infinitely malleable, meaning it can be beaten to the thickness of an atom. Now, that’s thin! So, when they are apart, their souls not only are not separated, they cannot be parted. Hence, the title: he is telling his wife in a poem of parting that she should not mourn because of this spiritual reality.
And so it is with us. We endure all kinds of separations all our lives: separations of distance, of time, of diseases such as Alzheimers which affect memory and recognition, and we are called on not only by John Donne, but also be Paul in his passage about the importance of hope and faith at the death of a loved one. It’s a short step to extend that idea to any kind of separation.
And so, as we take a break from choir during the month of July, we needn’t be sad or depressed. We will miss each other, but we know we will see each other again, in this life or the next. When we sing the old hymn, ”Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” we are reminded that
When we asunder part
It gives us inward pain.
But we shall still be joined in heart
And seek to meet again.
It’s interesting that the version sung in England includes the line When for a while we part, while a more modern revision of the verse changes the line to When we are called to part. You can put me down for “asunder,” please. We don’t hear it much any more, but it’s a word I like.
English clergyman John Fawcett who wrote this hymn in 1740 was clearly echoing Donne’s poem composed in 1611 or 1612. He would have been familiar with it as an educated person.
And so, I wish you a safe and refreshing July, ever mindful that God holds all of us, that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and that we are never separated from each other as well.