This month marks two years since I met and befriended the greatest poet the English language has ever produced. To honor the man, I reproduce here one of my favorite poems of his, “The Holdfast.” It has helped me through some dark times recently, and I pray you will be comforted and strengthened by it as I have been.
I threat’ned to observe the strict decree
Of my dear God with all my power and might.
But I was told by one, it could not be;
Yet I might trust in God to be my light.
Then will I trust, said I, in him alone.
Nay, ev’n to trust in him, was also his:
We must confess, that nothing is our own.
Then I confess that he my succor is:
But to have nought is ours, not to confess
That we have nought. I stood amazed at this,
Much troubled, till I heard a friend express,
That all things were more ours by being his.
What Adam had, and forfeited for all,
Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.
Thank you George Herbert, for showing me the God who cannot fail or fall.
I’ve had some half-formed ideas running though my head for a while, and a stanza from a George Herbert poem helped to cement one a little bit. This is stanza 72 in his poem “Perirrhanterium:”
Judge not the preacher; for he is thy Judge:
If thou mislike him, thou conceiv’st him not.
God calleth preaching folly. Do not grudge
To pick out treasures from an earthen pot.
The worst speak something good: if all want sense;
God takes a text, and preacheth patience.
It was the last line or so that caught my eye: “The worst speak something good: if all want sense;/ God takes a text, and preacheth patience.”
I’m still having some difficulty articulating this, so bear with me. It seems that this is an example of the value of means- is that the right way to say it? Typically, we value ends; results; that which we set out to achieve when we set out to achieve something. The means- that which we do in order to get the result we want- is secondary. It may be necessary; it may sometimes even be enjoyable; but it is still secondary.
For example: When I am in my home and I want to eat a sandwich, I first must make a sandwich. This is (I think) common knowledge. The actual making of the sandwich holds no particular pleasures for me; I do not think to myself, Boy, I really could go for making a sandwich right now. I think people would begin to notice if I went around making sandwiches with great delight yet never eating them. The sandwich making is merely a means to an end. And largely, we do not associate the means with value. Perhaps in things we must practice, we think means are valuable- in learning to drive a car, for example. But not generally.
Here the line from Herbert comes in. When I sit in the church pew to hear a truly awful sermon, I’m usually not very happy; after all, I came here for the end of obtaining knowledge, receiving instruction, being stirred up in the faith, and so on, and to sit through the sermon in order for those things to happen is bad enough. Worse still is it when the text is poorly explicated by a passionless minister without a drop of charisma. Yet Herbert hits upon an important point: the event of preaching itself- whether the preaching is good or bad- is an occasion for God to teach a lesson which I could not have anticipated.
Isn’t that just like life? When I was in high school I strenuously objected to being forced to learn algebra and precalculus because I knew, I just knew that I was never going to use those things in real life. I seem to have been right thus far, in that since I graduated from high school six years ago no one has shoved a quadrilateral under my nose and demanded that I solve for x. But the equations themselves, I’ve come to realize, were the least of what I learned in my precalc class under Barney Mitchell those years ago.
Learning math, I am convinced, has helped my theology. After all, where did I learn the importance of caution in my reasoning? Where did I learn to show my work, so others might be able to learn from my method as well as correct my mistakes? Where did I learn to patiently labor at that which I did not understand, yet that which was right in front of me? I have to say, if I remember correctly, that I learned all of these things from good old Mr. Mitchell in math class. And there are a thousand examples of this.
I hope I’ve articulated myself well enough. Lord willing, I will have more to say on this subject.
Another poem by George Herbert. This guy is solid gold. This poem is entitled “The Agony.”
Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of the seas, of states, and kings,
Walked with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two, vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.
I hope you enjoy Herbert as much as I do.
I’ve got be studying for these last weeks of school- I just need a little distraction before I start, so thank you for providing me with this opportunity.
I’ve written on my previous blog about reading the Word typologically, poetically- an art I strongly believe in, and a thing which I think Christians are leery of today. There is good reason for this, no doubt. If you start assigning hidden meanings and symbolism to Scripture at will, it may end up looking more like Alice in Wonderland than orthodoxy pretty quickly. Nevertheless, I think it can be done responsibly, and even in a way which doesn’t presume upon Scripture.
What I’m talking about is thoughtful reflection on the Scripture, followed by creative expression. George Herbert is, I feel, the master of this. In his poem “The Sacrifice,” he points out over and over again these ironies in Christ’s Passion which are both poignant and deeply tragic.
For example: in speaking of the soldiers blindfolding Jesus to strike him, Herbert says (from the viewpoint of Christ), “My face they cover, though it be divine/ As Moses’ face was veiled, so is mine/ Lest on their double-dark souls either shine.”
Now, is that a comparison that the text would lead us to make? Probably not. But what insight it brings! It’s clear that Herbert thought deeply about the event of Christ’s trial, connected this event to Moses covering his face, and expressed it in such a way that we would see the sad irony in this bit of the story.
Another example: speaking of the crown of thorns, he writes, “So sits the earth’s great curse in Adam’s fall/ Upon my head: so I remove it all/ From th’ earth unto my brows, and bear the thrall.”
I had never thought of it like that- of course it’s true that in his crucifixion Jesus bore Adam’s curse, but is that what the crown of thorns represents? Maybe. Maybe not.
My point: Herbert isn’t saying that the authors of Scripture intended that these connections be made; in making them for us, he is simply helping us to think deeply about Scripture ourselves. We don’t have to pretend that everything we imagine Scripture might be saying is gospel truth, and it certainly isn’t going to kill us to try.
Back to work,
George Herbert again. One of his more famous poems, and one which I love. If you can figure out why it’s called “The Pulley,” then feel free to comment.
When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.
So strength first made a way;
The beauty flowed, then wisdom, honor, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.
For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.
I’ve recently been set onto George Herbert’s poetry, and if I knew what the word “sublime” meant, I would use it to describe some of these poems. Here’s my favorite, entitled, “Prayer (1).”
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 tower
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 dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.