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George Herbert, Anglican identity

Window at St Andrew's Church, Bemerton

The Melbourne Anglican, December 2010

Article by Philip Harvey

Silence is, I find, often the best way to be with God. Wonder and love are returned through silence and silent prayer. Words can get in the way of such contemplation. Words can hinder and confuse. They can reveal the limits of our understanding, of God and ourselves.

However, words are our human way of making meaning. They are necessary, and we are blessed with the abundant vocabulary and versatile verbs of English. Our English has been global for over 300 years, with a multiplicity of expressions for what matters most. Being someone who reads poetry every day, there are poets I return to for refreshment, clarity, or good humour. Perspective helps and George Herbert offers good things. He lived at a time when English more or less coalesced into its modern form. The Authorised Bible was first printed in his lifetime. He lived beside prestigious contemporaries, but while Shakespeare can hyperventilate and Donne poses with extremity, Herbert carefully drafts the logic of spiritual awareness. He asks in ‘Christmas’, “The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?”

George Herbert was born in Montomery Castle, Powys, Wales in 1593, the year that Shakespeare wrote his first sonnets and started ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’. His father died when he was three. His mother, Lady Magdalen Herbert, was the most powerful influence on George’s life. She wanted him to enter the priesthood, not go into politics. He attended Westminster School, where he would have listened to Lancelot Andrewes, Dean of the Abbey, then Trinity College, Cambridge. He gained MA in the year of Shakespeare’s death, 1616.

Herbert was not only an excellent Greek and Latin scholar, but also fluent in Italian, Spanish, and French, and an accomplished musician who played the lute and composed songs, often his own songs. Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) was dedicated to two of his kinsmen. That same year, Herbert entered Parliament for Montgomeryshire. But in 1625 King James died. This put out of reach Herbert’s hopes of immediate preferment, being a favourite of James. It is at this time, and not coincidentally, that he considered seriously taking Holy Orders. He was ordained in Salisbury Cathedral in 1630.

A recent bestseller in ministry is called ‘If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him’. This play on the notorious Buddhist saying is not a dismissal of Herbert, but a reminder that we can make false idols out of anyone, even theologians. Herbert is a guru insofar as he shows, by example, the way to more perfect understanding of the way.

It is not certain when most of his work was written, but the poems of turmoil and unrest are sometimes seen as being written in the years of his diaconate, with the poems of more easeful religious reflection coming with marriage and priesthood.

The French philosopher Simone Weil is amongst those who think Herbert’s ‘Love’ to be one of the greatest English poems. “Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin.” As the way to meet God must at least be through the personal, and if my God is the God of Love, then this is the way to speak of God. Herbert shows precisely what really happens when love is offered and returned. Delight is not far from fear, acceptance from resistance. Rapture will be tempered by self-knowledge.

“But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack … drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, / If I lack’d any thing.” Some readers see this as purely an erotic love poem and certainly physical and emotional give-and-take is in play. But what kind of lover “took my hand, and smiling did reply / ‘Who made the eyes but I?’? Or instructs the challenged soul, “You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.” Clearly this is much more than a come-on. Only after the individual has overcome their guilt and sin, seen it through a greater love and been found worthy, can they “sit and eat” with the one who first invited them. The context and language are explicitly eucharistic. The poem describes the movement of the Eucharist. It is a prayer that could not exist without the Lord’s Prayer. And it is the lead into much of Herbert’s writing: the pull between his doubts about assurance and his willingness to engage with a God who not only forgives, but shares.

In terms of my own upbringing, Herbert speaks again and again of the knowledge that no matter what weird travesties I find myself in, whatever oversights and unsightliness I myself make in this dim world of wonders and terrors, I am loved and forgiven. I am certain that love is what people must be given, to love in turn. Which is why always the Eucharist, even when I’m slack in attending or cannot figure out what it’s all about, is the example of how love happens. Talking fine words is lovely enough, but Herbert’s fine words reiterate those at the Last Supper: “Do this.”

First, we are asked just to do it. Then, each of us takes it into the world. Just as love increases while freely being given, making by doing, so with this action of the Eucharist, it is something we do again and again, wherever and whenever, that we may be alive to the one who loves us in turn, and to one another. 

Good reason for George Herbert’s attractiveness can also be found in his collection of ‘Outlandish Proverbs’. He was an early collector of aphorisms, and sometimes I cannot tell if many of these sayings are begged, borrowed, or his own. “Every mile is two in the winter.” “Power seldom grows old at court.” “He begins to die, that quits his desires.” “Thursday come, and the week’s gone.” “The shortest answer is doing.” “Time is the rider that breaks youth.” And another favourite of mine, “Saint Luke was a saint and a physician, yet is dead.”

No doubt too, my experience of growing up in vicarages explains my respectful enjoyment of this poet. When we lose a parent we have all the time in the world then to think about them and what they really thought and felt and did. While they were alive we were so caught up with ourselves, we could never notice fully their own true dedication. This is true in my life. The joys, trials and hardships of my father can often be considered in tranquillity when I read Herbert’s ‘The Country Parson, His Character, and Rule of Holy Life’, which is not only one of that century’s best introductions to pastoral life, but a brilliant portrait of steady Anglican existence before 1633, the year of Herbert’s death from consumption, just before the rise of Archbishop Laud and the ensuing Puritan catastrophe. In 1649, his birthplace was demolished in the Civil War.

He writes: “The country parson preacheth constantly: the pulpit is his joy and his throne … When he preacheth he procures attention by all possible art … and by a diligent and busy cast of his eye on his auditors, with letting them know that he observes who marks and who not; and with particularizing of his speech – now to the younger sort, then to the elder; now to the poor, and now to the rich. This is for you, and This is for you.” 

Of equal attention is the altar: “The country parson being to administer the Sacraments, is at a stand with himself how or what behaviour to assume for so holy things. Especially at Communion times he is in great confusion, as being not only to receive God, but to break and administer him. Neither finds he any issue in this but to throw himself down at the throne of grace, saying Lord, thou knowest what thou didst when thou appointedst it to be done thus: therefore do thou fulfil what thou dost appoint; for thou art not only the feast, but the way to it.”

How shall we know if we have met the true Buddha? Some clergy would think it a cheek that Herbert, who only worked in Bemerton near Salisbury for three years, could know anything about the real struggles of a parish. But when I read Herbert, I wonder what startling observations he could have added, had he lived past 40. The concentration of experience, informed by deep religious wisdom and expressed through what has been called his “quiet economy of wit”, makes anything he writes worth a revisit.

The best Works of George Herbert in print is the excellent Everyman’s hardback edition (1995) edited by Ann Pasternak Slater. Layout is superb, Slater’s notes speak to our world, and it includes Izaak Walton’s piebald Life of Herbert. But of course we also revisit Herbert every time we sing his poems set to hymn tunes or demand in the middle of some argument, please state the case in plain English.


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