Recounting his efforts to find the Holy Ghost in private prayer, John Donne confessed:
I lock my door to myself, and I throw myself down in the presence of my God, I divest myself of all worldly thoughts, and I bend all my powers, and faculties upon God, as I think, and suddenly I find myself scattered, melted, fallen into vain thoughts, into no thoughts; I am upon my knees, and I talk, and think nothing; . . . I gather new forces, new purposes to try again, and do better, and I do the same thing again. I believe in the Holy Ghost, but do not find him, if I seek him only in private prayer. (Sermon LXXVI, 1622)
We are certainly counseled to seek our three-personed God in prayer, but we are also instructed not to “forsake[e] the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25). More importantly, we are promised, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
Like us, Donne had to heed those words of scripture. His next sentence in the sermon quoted above makes clear where he found d the God he sought: “[I]n ecclesia, when I go to meet him in the church, when I seek him where he hath promised to be found, when I seek him in the execution of that commission, which is proposed to our faith in this text, in his ordinances, and means of salvation in his church.”
I confess here today, writing not as a hypocrite but as a humble penitent, that I have been forsaking weekly assembly with my brothers and sisters to sing and worship and partake of the holy food and drink. I have made convincing excuses about too many papers to grade and too little communion of saints, wailing, “Nobody knows my name.”
But Advent is a time of new beginnings. May we seek together our Lord Emanuel, accepting the promises in this folk hymn from 1625, sung by Dutch Protestants in defiance of King Philip II of Spain’s edict against their assembling to worship:
We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
the wicked oppressing now cease from distressing;
sing praises to His Name, He forgets not His own.
Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine;
so from the beginning the fight we were winning:
Thou, Lord wast at our side–the glory be Thine!
We all do extol Thee, Thou leader in battle,
and pray that Thou still our defender wilt be.
Let Thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy name be ever praised; O Lord, make us free!