I note it’s been a few years since I’d shared from the writings of my favorite 17th century poet, George Herbert, in this month, so I turn to him once again, with a particularly apt poem.
Herbert was born in Montgomeryshire, England, to a prominent family on April 3, 1593. Graduating in 1616 from Trinity College, Cambridge, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he continued there as professor of rhetoric until 1628. In 1624 he also became a member of Parliament and, with the favor extended him by King James I, the Earl of Pembroke and other patrons, Herbert might have advanced quite far politically. However, his heart was in service to the Church, and after holding a minor clerical position at Leighton Bromswold from 1626 on, he was fully ordained an Anglican priest in 1630 and sent to serve the relatively small parish of Fuggleston St. Peter near Salisbury, England.
He was there only three short years before dying of tuberculosis Mar. 1, 1633 (the day on which he is commemorated in the Anglican, Lutheran and other churches). But in that time, besides his gracious, insightful care for his parish, he composed The Country Parson, a guidebook for pastors in rural ministry and compiled his great collection of poems called The Temple. After his death, he arranged to have the manuscript sent to a good friend, Deacon Nicholas Ferrar, asking him to publish it if he thought it would “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul” or burn it if he thought otherwise—! Thankfully, Ferrar indeed thought them worth sharing, and they were published to Herbert’s lasting acclaim.
The sonnet chosen for this month, appropriate with our midweek Lenten theme, links image after image in description of prayer. Those in the second quatrain are especially striking in their militancy, but 17th century poets were adept in uniting seemingly incongruous themes—in this instance, inviting Christians to see prayer indeed as entry to the very throne room of God and bold presentation to him of all our needs and cries and petitions. As we continue prayers for our parish this season, may we also boldly feast at this “Church’s banquet.”
Prayer the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth;
Engine against the Almighty, sinners’ tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transforming 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.