Tag Archives: George Herbert

The 23rd Psalm

THE 23rd PSALM

The God of love my shepherd is,
And he that doth me feed:
While he is mine, and I am his,
What can I want or need?

He leads me to the tender grass,
Where I both feed and rest;
Then to the streams that gently pass:
In both I have the best.

Or if I stray, he doth convert
And bring my mind in frame:
And all this not for my desert,
But for his holy name.

Yea, in death’s shady black abode
Well may I walk, not fear:
For thou art with me; and thy rod
To guide, thy staff to bear.

Nay, thou dost make me sit and dine,
Ev’n in my enemies’ sight:
My head with oil, my cup with wine
Runs over day and night.

Surely thy sweet and wondrous love
Shall measure all my days;
And as it never shall remove,
So neither shall my praise.

–George Herbert

 

Something understood.

I hope you don’t find this poem excessive, in the way of making prayer into a monumental event or an effort of the mind that is beyond us common folk. Prayer is a thing we do need to practice if we are to learn it. We can’t grasp it, but we can do it, and understand somehow, something deeper than our minds. These lines challenge me to at least thank God for the simplest experience of prayer, maybe what Herbert calls “heaven in ordinary,” even if I am incapable myself of writing a line about this “kind of tune.” Read it slowly.

PRAYER I

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

-George Herbert

 

Echoes of harmonies and blisse.

St Andrew’s Church in Bemerton, Wiltshire

This is the church where George Herbert served as rector for a only a few years before his death at the age of 39. He was born in Wales in 1593, into a wealthy and powerful family. The poet John Donne was his godfather, which was surely an important role, as his father Richard died when George was three years old. After his university education he held posts at Cambridge, was briefly a member of parliament, and held the clerical post of prebend.

But it wasn’t until 1629 that he decided to enter the priesthood and was appointed to the parish where “he lived, preached and wrote poetry; he also helped to rebuild the Bemerton church and rectory out of his own funds.”

He knew he was dying (of consumption); it was in that last year of life that he sent all of his poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar, asking him to publish them if he thought they were good for anything. He said that they held “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus, my Master.” Commenting on George Herbert’s religious poetry later in the 17th century, Richard Baxter said that the poet “speaks to God like one that really believeth in God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books.”

His prose works include a volume of nearly 1200 “outlandish proverbs” that he collected, and which is currently available on Amazon. That’s one that looks interesting to me, too.

Charles Cotton described George Herbert as a “soul composed of harmonies,” and it seems that he was also a skilled lutenist and composed hymns. More than ninety of Herbert’s poems have been set for singing over the centuries by composers like Benjamin Britten, Henry Purcell, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. When I read that the Wesley brothers adapted a few dozen for the Methodist hymnal, I checked out our family’s inheritance of hymnals from Methodist and Presbyterian churches but only found one attribution to Herbert.

But I do have a collection of his poems. I’ve shared other works of this poet; now here is one that I only recently noticed, whose echo-dialogue and themes I like very much. I found online a thorough exploration of the poem by Inge Leimberg, who tells us that “In Herbert the three themes of death, being restored from death, and spiritual vision are closely bound up with music and poetry (which to Herbert are one and the same).” I haven’t finished reading her essay, but I did catch one example of the layers of meaning he was famous for; “holy leaves” likely refer not just to leaves, but also to pages of the Bible.

One friend was of the opinion that Herbert would be singing his melodies with the angels in heaven, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the angels do join in with this harmonious and persevering soul.

HEAVEN

O who will show me those delights on high?
Echo.         I.
Thou Echo, thou art mortall, all men know.
Echo.         No.
Wert thou not born among the trees and leaves?
Echo.         Leaves.
And are there any leaves, that still abide?
Echo.         Bide.
What leaves are they? impart the matter wholly.
Echo.         Holy.
Are holy leaves the Echo then of blisse?
Echo.         Yes.
Then tell me, what is that supreme delight?
Echo.         Light.
Light to the minde : what shall the will enjoy?
Echo.         Joy.
But are there cares and businesse with the pleasure?
Echo.         Leisure.
Light, joy, and leisure ; but shall they persever?
Echo.         Ever.

-George Herbert 1593–1633

A theme of love and serving.

This sign on the wall in our church kitchen shows evidence of its location above the coffee maker. I was looking at it as though for the first time this morning as I prepared the agape meal at church. It was my fourth time cooking for 100-120 people; I don’t know exactly how many ate today, but the important thing is we didn’t run out of food. 🙂

I went back and forth from the kitchen to the church as needed to put things in the oven to warm, and to worship. Before Divine Liturgy there was a glorious baptism, and I was surprised to miss the actual immersion of the baby, but I came in to the heady scent of Holy Chrism as he was being lifted out of the font, which in an Orthodox baptism is no more than halfway through, so there was plenty of praying left to do, and rejoicing in the love and joy that filled the place.

The next time I had to leave and come back, I entered when Father Peter was giving the homily. I’d never heard him preach before, and his words were full of warm encouragement. Near the end he recited the whole poem below, with a fitting and enlivening amount of expression.

It was a great honor to be the one serving and feeding my fellow worshipers a few minutes later. All week I’ve been grousing and anxious about the upcoming event, even though I had planned and organized well and had young and competent helpers, an easy menu, etc. As has been the case before, I began to relax on Saturday when we did the first steps of cooking. I was so grateful for my assistants who are my friends and love me.

Today, even more people helped, were thankful, told me that they loved the food — all the hugs and kind words I could want, to make me feel what a gift it is to be part of this parish and of Christ’s Church, and to work with people on a worthy project.

When I heard Herbert’s poem, I immediately thought, “I must share that on my blog!” I forgot to take any pictures of the food to share, but I think you can envision a hefty chunk of cheesy polenta with a scoop of the meatiest possible red sauce ladled over, plus a dollop of pesto on top. Mixed greens on the side, and ice cream for dessert. I might do this same menu again sometime, it was so relatively easy and successful.

For the good of our souls, it was not worth much, though, compared to the Love that Father Peter talked about, and George Herbert sang of, and which we had tasted in the Holy Mysteries that morning.

But it was an echo and a reminder, and gave us sustenance so that we could sit around basking in our family happiness for a while. “O taste and see that the LORD is good!”

LOVE

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

–George Herbert