If …

Constancy

Who is the honest man?

He that doth still and strongly good pursue,

To God, his neighbour, and himself most true:

             Whom neither force nor fawning can

Unpin, or wrench from giving all their due.

                

                         Whose honesty is not

So loose or easy, that ruffling wind

Can blow away, or glittering look it blind:

             Who rides his sure and even trot,

While the world now rides by, now lags behind.

 

                         Who, when great trials come,

Nor seeks, nor shuns them; but doth calmly stay,

Till he the thing and the example weigh:

             All being brought into a sum,

What place or person calls for, he doth pay.

 

                         Whom none can work or woo

To use in anything a trick or sleight;

For above all things he abhores deceit:

             His words and works and fashion too

All of a piece, and all are clear and straight.

 

                         Who never melts or thaws

At close tentations*: when the day is done,

His goodness sets not, but in dark can run:

             The sun to others writeth laws,

And is their virtue; Virtue is his Sun#.

 

                         Who, when he is to treat

With sick folks,women, those whom passions sway,

Allows for that, and keeps his constant way:

             Whom others faults do not defeat;

But though men fail him, yet his part doth play.

 

                         Whom nothing can procure,

When the wide world runs bias~, from his will

To writhe his limbs, and share, not mend the ill,

             This is the Mark-man, safe and sure,

Who still is right, and prays to be so still.

 

*ie temptations

#when Herbert uses the word sun he is always hinting at Jesus the son of God

~a metaphor taken from bowls

I was struck by this poem because of its similarities to the famous poem by Rudgard Kipling “If” as it seeks to delineate what true manliness is. The sexism in the poem is made evident in the penultimate verse where women are stereotyped as among those ‘whom passions sway’ which reminds us that although the subtlety and depth of thought and feeling in Herbert can make him feel like a contemporary, he was living in a very different world. This is also evident when we read his treatise “The Country Parson” which describes the role of a rural vicar in what might seem to us as an impossibly idealized and paternalistic manner.

We might also regard this poem in a similar way is it simply ‘a good-natured poem, counseling an unsettled man to settle down and work out his honesty in the routines of everyday life’ or is it an early illustration of an English stiff upper lip which seeks to deny and control emotion?

What do you feel? Is it inspiring or annoying?!

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Praise

Praise (II)

KIng of Glory, King of Peace,

               I will love thee:

And that love may never cease,

               I will move thee.

 

Thou hast granted my request,

               Thou hast heard me:

Thou didst note my working breast,

               Thou hast spar’d me.

 

Wherefore with my utmost art

               I will sing thee,

And the cream of all my heart

               I will bring thee.

 

Though my sinnes against me cried,

              Thou didst cleare me;

And alone, when they replied,

               Thou didst heare me.

 

Sev’n whole days, not one in seven,

               I will praise thee.

In my heart, though not in heaven,

               I can raise thee.

 

Thou grew’st soft and moist with tears,

               Thou relentedst:

And when Justice call’d for fears,

               Thou disentedst.

 

Small it is, in this poor sort

               To enroll* thee:

Ev’n eternitie is to short

               To extoll thee.

 

*Enroll in this context means record with honour or celebrate

After the anguish of our previous poem Affliction this poem, which is analogous in tone and theme to our Psalm 116, is confident and positive with a very clear pattern.

The odd-numbered verses talk about what the poet will do – love, praise, sing and the even-numbered versus respond with what God has done – heard, spared, cleared. It is significant to note that the poet talks about what he will do rather than what he has done – the initiative is therefore with God and the poet is looking forward to his grateful response.

And yet there is another theme woven into this simple theme of gratitude to God. The poet has actually been seeking to move and affect God by his praise, and this is effective – God is pictured as being moved to tears by the poet’s prayers! It is an extraordinary image – God being so affected by our pleas and cries that he starts to shed tears of love and forgiveness. This is a theme that is common in the Hebrew Scriptures – God is not remote and unmoved but emotionally affected by what we do, as is illustrated in our Psalm “I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my supplications”.

The final verse departs from the pattern of the poet’s actions and God’s response. Herbert is so consumed with his wonder at God’s graciousness that he feels his poetry to be entirely inadequate. Our praise of God is, perhaps, poorer than Herbert considers his verse to be – and yet we can be confident that it is good enough. Phew!

This is, perhaps, important to us in our small country churches. Our worship may not be of the same ‘standard’ as cathedrals or in affluent suburbs – and yet it is good enough. What really matters is the genuineness of our gratitude, not our technical accomplishments as worshipers.

  • What causes you to feel grateful to God?
  • What makes you feel inadequate in your service of God?
  • How will you respond to God in the light of Herbert’s poem?
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Herbert’s Dark Night of the Soul

Affliction (IV)

Broken in pieces all asunder,

Lord, hunt me not,

A thing forgot,

Once a poor creature, now a wonder,

A wonder tortur’d in the space

Betwixt this world and that of grace.

 

My thoughts are all a case of knives,

Wounding my heart

With scatter’d smart,

As watring pots give flowers their lives.

Nothing their fury can control,

While they do wound and prick my soul.

 

All my attendants are at strife,

Quitting their place

Unto my face:

Nothing performs the task of life:

The elements are let loose to fight,

And while I live, try out their right.

 

Oh help, my God! let not their plot

Kill them and me,

And also thee,

Who art my life: dissolve the knot,

As the sun scatters by his light

All the rebellions of the night.

 

Then shall those powers, which work for grief,

Enter thy pay,

And day by day

Labour thy praise, and my relief;

With care and courage building me,

Till I reach heav’n, and much more, thee.

Herbert wrote five poems entitled Affliction and it is one of his most important themes. Here in the private place of prayer he wrestles with his own doubts, anguish and hurts – and most importantly with God himself.

In this poem, which I find one of the most startling in the whole collection, Herbert honestly explores his own psychological struggles and sense that he is being afflicted by God. In the first verse he feels broken and strange (he uses wonder in this sense rather than something marvelous). In the second verse he is aware how his thoughts have become a thousand tiny pricks hurting and wounding him rather than helping him cope with his afflictions. In the third verse he compares himself to a chaotic household where all the servants are fighting each other and not getting on with their jobs. The fourth verse is perhaps the most unsettling, so knotted and painful have his internal conflicts become that he is contemplating death, and even, perhaps, suicide? Finally Herbert prays for God’s light to enter into this dark night of the soul and take charge of the confused household of his soul, so that under God’s care his powers of thought and reflection work for his good rather than his suffering.

It is a powerful and disturbing description of a life which is collapsing and seemingly bent on self-destruction. The image of a household at war with itself (perhaps we would think more readily in terms of a nuclear family) is suggestive of the complexity of emotions that can be found in our own hearts.

  • Have you ever experienced this kind of extreme affliction and self destructiveness?
  • How aware are you of the internal conflicts and disputes within your own heart?
  • What resources can you turn to when you feel overwhelmed by affliction and internal conflicts?
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Miranda Threlfall-Holmes on Herbert

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2014/feb/17/george-herbert-dangerous-challenge-atheism

Interesting looking series of articles on George Herbert

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Bittersweet

Bitter-sweet

Ah my dear angry Lord,

Since thou dost love, yet strike;

Cast down, yet help afford;

Sure I will do the like.

                                   

I will complain, yet praise;

I will bewail, approve:

And all my sour-sweet days

I will lament, and love.

 

From the gentle devotion of our previous poem The Call we move on to something more astringent and challenging.

This miniature poem beautifully sums up the tension we find in George Herbert’s work which draws us deep down into the complexities and challenges of the spiritual life rather than leaving us on the pleasant surface of prayer and devotion.

First of all Herbert is not afraid of calling God angry. This is something we tend to shy away from in modern spirituality, but it is certainly part of the biblical witness. I, also, find it necessary – I need a God who is passionate and angry at injustice, hypocrisy and suffering. For me a God who is only sweetness and light is insufficient and unnecessary and different from the God I encounter in Scripture. Herbert seemed to feel the same.

Yet he does not easily accept an angry God – like those people who enjoy worshiping an angry God who will smite their enemies and justify their actions. No, for Herbert, this angry, difficult God must be struggled with. This is something he did throughout his life. He always struggled with ill health, dying at the young age of 39 but he also struggled with his way in life spending long years wondering what to do with himself after he decided the public life of politics and the court was not for him.

But for Herbert this awareness of an angry, demanding God is put alongside his awareness of the essential nature of God, which is, of course, love. This is one of the classic paradoxes in Christian theology but Herbert’s response to it is surprising and startling – and not without a touch of humour. For me it also provides an echo of Old Testament characters such as Abraham and Jeremiah who argued and contested with God in a way we often seem reluctant to do.

Herbert confronts the paradoxical nature of God with his own paradoxical self. If God can be dear and angry, loving and judging then perhaps this means that it’s okay to love God but also complain to God, to praise God but also be disappointed with God.

And this is what Herbert does throughout his verse. He is eloquent in his praise and love for God, but he is also equally eloquent in his complaints and despair. Herbert is not interested in a plaster saint, for him the only way of being a Christian is to be absolutely honest with God and hide and hides nothing. This did not mean that he didn’t live a decorous and respectable life – Herbert was no wild romantic poet! But in the secrecy of prayer Herbert never held back. It is important to remember that Herbert didn’t seek to publish his verse in his lifetime, it is the record of a private conversation with God which he conducted throughout his life. Poetry for him was prayer and we are eavesdropping on his devotions.

  • Do you experience God as being angry?
  • How easy do you find it to be honest with God?
  • What in your own life is bittersweet
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The Call

The Call

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:

Such a Way, as gives us breath:

Such a Truth, as ends all strife:

Such a Life, as killeth death.

 

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:

Such a Light, as shows a feast:

Such a Feast, as mends in length:

Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

 

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:

Such a Joy, as none can move:

Such a Love, as none can part:

Such a Heart, as joys in love.

 

We begin our celebration of George Herbert with a simple and fluid illustration of his sincere devotion and spirituality which has been beautifully set to music by Vaughan Williams in his settings of George Herbert entitled Five Mystical Songs.

The first verse, of course, is based on John 14.6 ‘Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ And so although the poem doesn’t mention God or Jesus it is very obvious that this is the object of its devotion.

The second verse, although having echoes of Scripture (Jesus says in John 8:12 “I am the light of the world”) uses domestic imagery, thus rooting Herbert’s spirituality in the day-to-day world. Mends in length means it improves as it goes on, perhaps reminding us of the wine at the feast of Cana!

The final verse heightens the tone by repeating the initial triad of joy, love and heart in the final line and, as it were, lifting us up into the very heart of God. For Herbert, love is the heart of Christianity. He wrote three poems entitled Love, one of which we will be reflecting on at the end of our series and when he is wanting to get to the core of the gospel this is always where he ends up. This is particularly important because of the times in which Herbert lived were ones of great theological controversy between Protestants and Catholics, between Puritans and traditionalists. Herbert always seeks a middle way, yes he is a reformed Protestant Anglican but he also values the treasures of the Catholic past and it is love which holds this middle way between the extremes.

This, perhaps, is expressed in the heavily structured yet flowing nature of the poem. The three words with which each verse is begun are developed in the subsequent lines and yet it is done gracefully and easily so that it’s gently guides our contemplation rather than controlling it. This might make us reflect on the importance of having a flexible structure in our spiritual lives, as well as, perhaps in our daily life

  • What structure do you find helps your spiritual life?
  • What role does flexibility and responsiveness have in a regular prayer life?
  • Do I need more structure or more flexibility in my life?
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George Herbert Festival

http://www.georgeherbert.org.uk/News/festival.html

Thursday 10th – Sunday 13th July

The Festival will be a four-day event to celebrate George Herbert, centred around Bemerton, Salisbury and Wilton, where he spent the last three years of his life in rural ministry and had strong family connections. There will be presentations, talks, poetry readings, discussion groups, musical events, and local walks together with other related activities, all designed to enrich our understanding and enjoyment of Herbert’s life and works.

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