17 June 2014

George Herbert: A Brief Life of Love

George Herbert, memorialized in Salisbury Cathedral.

For many years I have had an admiration for George Herbert, an Anglican poet and cleric who died in 1633. My interest in his poetry began when I was a student at the Theological College in Salisbury, England.

It was in the small parish of St. Andrew's, Bemerton, just outside Salisbury that he spent the totality of his very brief three-year ministry. Truly a “country parson,” he was known as “Holy Mr. Herbert” for those three years, so striking was his devotion to God and his dedication to his parish. I felt a connection with him especially during the few years I spent as organist and choirmaster at St. Michael and All Angels, Bemerton Heath, which was a daughter parish of nearby St. Andrew’s.

One of the loveliest hymns we sing is his beautiful poem "Praise.II" set to David Walker’s gorgeous tune, “General Seminary.”

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 spared me.

Wherefore with my utmost art
I will sing thee,
and the cream of all my heart
I will bring thee.
Though my sins against me cried,
thou didst clear me;
and alone, when they replied,
thou didst hear me.

Seven whole days, not one in seven,
I will praise thee;
in my heart, though not in heaven,
I can raise thee.
Small it is, in this poor sort
to enroll thee:
e'en eternity's too short
to extol thee.

George Herbert was a protestant in his birth and upbringing and thought. His theology included ideas from both Luther and Calvin. But a mystical love for Christ and His sacrificial work weaves a Catholic flavour throughout his writings. His poem “Love.(III)” contains a beautiful reflection on God’s enveloping love, man’s sin and need for repentance, Christ’s forgiveness, and His compelling invitation to the Banquet:

"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 anything.

'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."

I find these words to be hauntingly beautiful. It must be our shared love for God that makes the thoughts of a centuries-old Anglican priest-poet remain fresh for us today.