In the end it all comes down to…

Love (III)

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,

                                           Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack

                                           From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

                                           If I lack’d any thing.

 

A guest, I answer’d, 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 marr’d 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.

 

This is George Herbert’s most well-known and best-loved poem. It is also the poem which completes his collection The Temple and so is a fitting conclusion to our little journey through his work and in many ways sums up the spiritual struggle to which his poems give witness.

What is perhaps most evident is his constant sense of sin and unworthiness. He feels God’s call, he experiences the reality of Love but he constantly struggles to embrace and receive it. This, of course, is the theme of his whole collection: a constant struggling with God, a deep sense of unworthiness and a piercingly honest confrontation of his own disappointments with God. Herbert twists and turns, argues and complains – laying before God his naked soul, but finally comes home to receive the Love which is being offered him.

It is, perhaps, worth reminding ourselves that these poems were a private exercise for Herbert. He showed them to no one during his lifetime and he must, I think, have wrestled long and hard with whether to send them to his friend Nicholas Ferrar before he died. Would anyone else be interested in his morbid introspection and rantings? Was his personal spiritual journey really of value to anyone else?

Time has answered a resounding Yes! But his work is still difficult and challenging. Maybe what it above all challenges us to do is to be honest in our relationship with God, not to smother our lives in a veneer of respectability and cheerfulness but to enter deeply into the challenges of what it means to be a human being.

  • How easy do I find it to be honest with God?
  • Poetry was George Herbert’s way of coming before God in all his complicated humanity. How do I bring all of myself before God?
  • How do I respond to the call of Love?
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Henry Vaughan – disciple of George Herbert

Peace

(by Henry Vaughan)

 

My soul, there is a country

   Far beyond the stars,

Where stands a winged sentry

   All skilful in the wars:

There, above noise and danger,

   Sweet Peace sits crown’d with smiles,

And One born in a manger

   Commands the beauteous files.

He is thy gracious Friend,

   And—O my soul, awake!—

Did in pure love descend

   To die here for thy sake.

If thou canst get but thither,

   There grows the flower of Peace,

The Rose that cannot wither,

   Thy fortress, and thy ease.

Leave then thy foolish ranges;

   For none can thee secure

But One who never changes—

   Thy God, thy life, thy cure.

When Herbert’s poems were printed after his death they immediately became very popular and influenced a whole generation of poets. Perhaps the best of these was Henry Vaughan who lived in the Brecon area.

Vaughan was a young man during the Civil War when he fought on the royalist side. It was a very distressing time for him and it seemed to initiate some kind of personal crisis. Herbert’s poems helped him get through these difficulties and develop a robust spirituality. He wrote a number of poems on similar themes to Herbert, bringing his particular sensibility and experiences to them, as well as many others expressing his own intense faith.

Herbert, for all his deep feeling, has something detached, ironic and controlled about his writing. Vaughan, on the other hand, is more mystical, loquacious and impassioned (this poem is very short by his standards!). Herbert often draws on homely metaphors and the ordered life of a Jacobean household, but Vaughan speaks more of the natural world and heavenly realities. Perhaps there is something more Celtic and Welsh about Vaughan’s writing or perhaps the roots of his style are to be found in the trauma of war and a subsequent need for transcendence.

Certainly the influence of the Civil War can be noticed in this poem about peace, where Vaughan finds relief from warfare and the zealous Puritanism of the Commonwealth in a transcendent vision of heavenly peace.

Poetry seemed to be the way Henry Vaughan came to terms with the trauma of the Civil War, after publishing his collection of spiritual verse Silex Scintillans and a sequel volume he became a doctor and seems to more or less have stopped writing poetry. While Vaughan is well recognized in Breconshire he is much less well-known elsewhere, although still a recognized master of spiritual verse. This poem, for instance, is best known in a setting by Hubert Parry the composer of the tune to Jerusalem.

  • How do I find peace in the midst of life’s traumas and difficulties?
  • Do I find the transcendent vision of Henry Vaughan helpful?
  • Or is the sighing and groaning of George Herbert more relevant for me?
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Searching for peace

Peace

Sweet Peace, where dost thou dwell? I humbly crave,

                                           Let me once know.

             I sought thee in a secret cave,

             And ask’d, if Peace were there.

A hollow wind did seem to answer, No:

                                           Go seek elsewhere.

 

I did; and going did a rainbow note:

                                           Surely, thought I,

             This is the lace of Peace’s coat:

             I will search out the matter.

But while I looked, the clouds immediately

                                           Did break and scatter.

 

Then went I to a garden, and did spy

                                           A gallant flower,

             The Crown Imperiall: sure, said I,

             Peace at the root must dwell.

But when I digg’d, I saw a worm devour

                                           What show’d so well.

 

At length I met a rev’rend good old man,

                                           Whom when of Peace

             I did demand, he thus began:

             There was a Prince of old

At Salem dwelt, who liv’d with good increase

                                           Of flock and fold*.

 

He sweetly liv’d; yet sweetness did not save

                                          His life from foes.

       But after death out of his grave

             There sprang twelve stalks of wheat^:

Which many wondring at, got some of those

                                           To plant and set.

 

It prosper’d strangely, and did soon disperse

                                           Through all the earth:

       For they that taste it do rehearse,

             That virtue lies therein,

A secret virtue bringing peace and mirth

                                          By flight of sin.

 

Take of this grain, which in my garden grows,

                                           And grows for you;

       Make bread of it: and that repose

             And peace, which ev’ry where

With so much earnestness you do pursue,

                                           Is only there.

 

*This is a reference to Melchizedek (a priest who Abraham encountered) who has often been seen as a symbol of Christ

^ Reference to 12 apostles

This is another of Herbert’s allegorical poems where the poet is searching for peace. In the first three verses he searches for peace in the natural world – a cave, a rainbow, a flower but these all disappoint. Only through Christ, here pictured in the type of Melchizedek, is true peace to be found. Yet in this Herbert returns to the natural world as peace is symbolised in grains of wheat growing in the garden.

It is interesting to note that in this allegory work needs to be done in order to achieve peace, even though it is received from Christ. The grains need to be planted in the garden and then harvested and then ground and then made into bread. It is a suggestive illustration of the demands of the spiritual life

  • What do you find brings you peace?
  • What is the balance between receiving peace as a gift and working on it so as to make it a nourishing reality in our own lives?

 

 

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Confronting my sinfulness

Sighs and Groans

                                     O do not use me

After my sins! look not on my desert,

But on thy glory! Then thou wilt reform

And not refuse me: for thou only art

The mighty God, but I a silly worm;

                                     O do not bruise me!

 

                                     O do not urge me!

For what account can thy ill steward make?

I have abus’d thy stock, destroy’d thy woods,

Suckt all thy magazens*: my head did ache,

Till it found out how to consume thy goods:

                                     O do not scourge me!

 

                                      O do not blind me!

I have deserv’d that an Egyptian night

Should thicken all my powers; because my lust

Hath still sow’d fig-leaves to exclude thy light:

But I am frailty, and already dust;

                                     O do not grind me!

 

                                     O do not fill me

With the turn’d vial of thy bitter wrath!

For thou hast other vessels full of blood,

A part whereof my Saviour empti’d hath,

Ev’n unto death: since he di’d for my good,

                                      O do not kill me!

 

                                     But O reprieve me!

For thou hast life and death at thy command;

Thou art both Judge and Saviour, feast and rod,

Cordial and Corrosive: put not thy hand

Into the bitter box; but O my God,

                                     My God, relieve me!

 

* Storehouses

This week we continue the theme of sighing and groaning which is so important for Herbert. In this poem he is particularly aware of his sins and in verses two-four he identifies himself with some biblical stories where human beings experience judgment

The ill steward reminds us of Jesus’s stories about stewardship e.g. the parable of the talents in Matthew 25

The Egyptian night of the plagues in Exodus 10:22 on the fig leaves used by Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:7

The turn’d vial of the seven golden vials full of the wrath of God in Revelation 15:7

A modern psychiatrist might consider that Herbert is suffering from a lack of self-esteem and that his ‘obsession’ with sin is unhealthy. But his writing can also be seen as a realistic assessment of human greed and failings. Verse two seems a particularly prescient analysis of human environmental vandalism and the admitting of frailty in verse three is a touching recognition of human limitations. Nonetheless whatever we think of them Herbert’s words are startling and challenging.

Ultimately perhaps what is most important is Herbert’s complete faith in God ‘for thou hast life and death’. He is able to fully acknowledge his failings and weaknesses without any need to defend or justify himself because he knows that in the end his God can and will relieve him. What a remarkable freedom and liberation this is!

  • How easy do you find it to acknowledge your sins?
  • How easy do you find it to focus on God’s glory rather than your sins?!
  • What is a psychologically healthy way of understanding and dealing with our sins and frailties?
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Pilgrim

The Pilgrimage

I travell’d on, seeing the hill, where lay

                                         My expectation.

                 A long it was and weary way.

                 The gloomy cave of Desperation

I left on th’ one, and on the other side

                                        The rock of Pride.

 

And so I came to fancies meadow strow’d

                                         With many a flower:

                 Fain would I here have made abode,

                 But I was quicken’d by my hour.

So to cares copse I came, and there got through

                                         With much ado.

 

That led me to the wild of Passion, which

                                         Some call the wold;

                 A wasted place, but sometimes rich.

                 Here I was robb’d of all my gold,

Save one good Angel*, which a friend had ti’d

                                         Close to my side.

 

At length I got unto the gladsome hill,

                                         Where lay my hope,

                 Where lay my heart; and climbing still,

                 When I had gain’d the brow and top,

A lake of brackish waters on the ground

                                         Was all I found.

 

With that abash’d and struck with many a sting

                                         Of swarming fears,

                 I fell, and cry’d, Alas my King!

                 Can both the way and end be tears?

Yet taking heart I rose, and then perceiv’d

                                         I was deceiv’d:

 

My hill was further: so I flung away,

                                         Yet heard a cry

                 Just as I went, None goes that way

                 And lives: If that be all, said I,

After so foul a journey death is fair,

                                       And but a chair

 

*An Angel was a gold coin

This poem is an allegory and might, perhaps, remind us of John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress which was written some 50 years later and was perhaps influenced by this poem, although Bunyan is more optimistic:

I beheld then, that they all went on till they came to the foot of the hill Difficulty, at the bottom of which there was a spring. There were also in the same place two other ways besides that which came straight from the gate: one turned to the left hand, and the other to the right, at the bottom of the hill; but the narrow way lay right up the hill, and the name of the going up the side of the hill is called Difficulty. Christian now went to the spring, (Isa. 49:10), and drank thereof to refresh himself, and then began to go up the hill

Pilgrimage was a Catholic practice that was dispensed with at the Reformation but it continued as an image of the spiritual life. The poem illustrates life’s disappointments, we achieve what we wanted but then find it has its own problems ‘a lake of brackish water on the ground was all I found’ and ultimately all we are traveling towards his death. It is a sobering thought.

The poem perhaps expresses Herbert’s restlessness. When he was young he sought advancement, but when it was in reach he walked away from it. Even when he was seemingly content as a vicar in Bemerton, he wondered if he shouldn’t be finding something better.

  • Are you content or restless?
  • Do you find it helpful to think of life in terms of the pilgrimage?
  • Where is your next destination in life?
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Groaning

Sion

Lord, with what glory wast thou serv’d of old,

When Solomons temple stood and flourished!

       Where most things were of purest gold;

       The wood was all embellished

With flowers and carvings, mystical and rare:

All show’d the builders, crav’d the seers care.

 

Yet all this glory, all this pomp and state

Did not affect thee much, was not thy aim;

       Something there was, that sow’d debate:

       Wherefore thou quitt’st thy ancient claim:

And now thy Architecture meets with sin;

For all thy frame and fabric is within.

 

There thou art struggling with a peevish heart,

Which sometimes crosseth thee, thou sometimes it:

       The fight is hard on either part.

       Great God doth fight, he doth submit.

All Solomons sea of brass and world of stone

Is not so dear to thee as one good groan.

 

And truly brass and stones are heavy things,

Tombs for the dead, not temples fit for thee:

       But groans are quick, and full of wings,

       And all their motions upward be;

And ever as they mount, like larks they sing;

The note is sad, yet music for a King.

 

This week we will be looking at one of the aspects of spiritual experience which seems to have fascinated Herbert – that of sighing and groaning! It is something he shared with St. Paul

“Even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of the body”

2 Corinthians 5:2 & 4

“We groan, earnestly desiring to be closed upon with our house which is from heaven… We that are in this tabernacle to groan, being burdened”

Romans 8:23

In this poem he contemplates Solomon’s great temple and all its amazing ornamentation – may be reflecting the wonderment of the disciples when they saw the temple in Jerusalem. Yet in the second verse he reflects on the deeper reality that God is not so much interested in magnificent architecture as what is going on within the human heart. In the third verse this is developed until at the end we are, perhaps, surprised by the word groan and even more so by the development in the final verse which compares groans to birds flying up into heaven! It is certainly an unusual and surprising image. Although perhaps less so when we think about the fashion for melancholic music in the court of James I, particularly as played by the famous composer and lutenist John Dowland who specialized in sorrowful songs about love.

But what role does groaning have in our spiritual life? As we have seen it is certainly a biblical theme and relates to the theological idea of the gift of tears: Pope Francis recently said ‘if we let ourselves cry, we can then recognize “the cry of the penitent, the cry of the brother and the sister who are looking upon so much human misery.”’

  • What makes me groan?
  • Can my groaning lift me up to heaven?
  • What are the dangers of sighing and groaning?

 

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Anger and Love

Discipline

Throw away thy rod,

Throw away thy wrath:

                         O my God,

Take the gentle path.

 

For my hearts desire

Unto thine is bent:

                         I aspire

To a full consent.

 

Not a word or look

I affect to own,

                         But by book,

And thy book alone.

 

Though I fail, I weep:

Though I halt in pace,

                         Yet I creep

To the throne of grace.

 

Then let wrath remove;

Love will do the deed:

                         For with love

Stony hearts will bleed.

 

Love is swift of foot;

Love’s a man of war,

                         And can shoot,

And can hit from far.

 

Who can scape his bow?

That which wrought on thee,

                         Brought thee low,

Needs must work on me.

 

Throw away thy rod;

Though man frailties hath,

                         Thou art God:

Throw away thy wrath

 

John Drury writes “God is just and good. Why, then, is so much that happens bad and unjust?… Herbert felt this discomfort keenly. He did not hesitate to accuse this God, his God of enticing him into grief under false pretences, of being a torturer, of being absent or silent when most needed. The reader of his poem ‘Discipline’ naturally expects that title to introduce a poem about discipline in the life of the Christian. It turns out differently. It is God who needs to behave himself, stop lashing about and learn to love. Interestingly, love is figured in the pagan form of Cupid, the little archer… The crucial reference here – to love which so ‘wrought on’ the deity that brought him low – brings in Christianity’s belief in the compassionate descent of deity to earth in Christ and asserts the primacy of love over Godhead… Tragic misfortune and death were taken into the absolute.”

  • How do you experience God’s ‘anger’?
  • How do you experience God’s ‘love’?

 

 

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