John Donne’s early poem “The Cross” was an intervention in a contemporary debate. Puritans wanted to eliminate crosses from English churches, but Donne, a moderate Calvinist, offered a poetic argument for retaining them. Can anyone who has been saved by the cross despise its image? The cross “bore all other sins, but is it fit / That it should bear the sin of scorning it?” Indeed, “the loss / Of this cross were to me another cross,” since “no cross is so extreme, as to have none.” Blotting out the cross is impossible in any case, since it was indelibly “dew’d on me in the Sacrament.”
If Donne’s poem is a brief for cruciphilia, it’s an ambiguous one, which holds interest today as an unconventional meditation on the crucifixion. At the turning point of the poem, he concludes “Material crosses . . . good physic be,” but immediately qualifies: “But yet spiritual have chief dignity.” He ends the poem on the same note:
Then doth the cross of Christ work faithfully
Within our hearts, when we love harmlessly
That cross’s pictures much, and with more care
That cross’s children, which our crosses are.
Even the material crosses he mentions aren’t the devotional objects we expect. Instead, Donne points to crosses imprinted on the human body, animals and birds, and the world. We make a cross of ourselves when we stretch out our arms. With every stroke, a swimmer forms a cross, and mast and yard together form a ship’s cross. Below, “thou spiest out crosses in small things,” and above “thou seest birds raised on crossed wings.” Crosses enable ships to cross tossing seas and birds to ascend to the sky. Earth itself is crossed: “All the globe’s frame, and spheres, is nothing else / But the meridians crossing parallels.” He uses the word “crucifix” only once, and it describes not a religious image but a man who carries his “cross ungrudged.”
The poem is itself crossed. Its first two couplets are cross-shaped chiasms. Lines 1-2 move from “embraced / cross / image” to “image / cross / deny.” Lines 3–4 have a similar shape: “profit / sacrifice / altar / despise.” The word “cross” appears over thirty times in the poem, with a variety of meanings. Donne scholars have pointed to his frequent use of images of transit or “crossing,” literal water-crossings that become symbols of spiritual journeys. In this poem as in others, Donne’s metaphysical conceits force the reader to cross from one realm of experience to another—from the wood on which Jesus was crucified to the crossing lines on a globe to the spiritual crosses we share.
Beyond these physical and literary figures of the cross, the chief dignity belongs to spiritual crosses, the “children” of Jesus’s cross. He has two things in mind. First, there are the troubles we each suffer, which have a medicinal effect when we accept them humbly. Donne also sees suffering as a tool of divine art:
As perchance carvers do not faces make,
But that away, which hid them there, do take;
Let crosses, so, take what hid Christ in thee,
And be His image, or not His, but He.
Every Christian says with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20). But Christ is often shrouded by layers of sin. Our crosses chip away our defenses, perverse habits, and self-delusions, removing “what hid Christ” so he can be seen. Tribulation doesn’t make us Christlike. Rather, our crosses unveil the crucified Christ in us, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27).
Second, there is the spiritual cross of self-discipline. Here “cross” slides into the region of “self-control,” “disciplines,” and “self-restraint.” To “cross” is to “mortify” the deadly flesh that still plagues us. In that sense, Donne exhorts the reader to “cross thy senses,” especially the eye since it “can roam, / And move” with lustful curiosity. Our hearts swing wildly from dejections to heights of pretense, and so: “cross thy heart.” The brain’s “bony walls” form a cross, a reminder, from this wittiest of poets, that we should “cross and correct concupiscence of wit.” We must even beware our joy in tribulation. “Self-despising” can beget “self-love,” and pride can be the “monster” child of humility: “therefore cross / Your joy in crosses, else, ’tis double loss.”
Today, millions of Christians will be crossed with ashes, a mark of the spiritual crosses we bear. Lent is the season of crossing, for crossing our senses, eyes, heart, wit, and joy, for enduring our suffering “ungrudged” so as to become a living crucifix, for crossing from death to life. Unnatural as they may seem, Donne reminds us Lenten crosses run with the grain of the universe, making us fully human and tuning us to the cross-shaped cosmos.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.