When Maggi invited me to preach on George Herbert in her college chapel, I kicked up an enormous fuss and went into paroxysms of inadequacy...but I have to say that the process of preparing the sermon turned out to be pure joy.
Herbert has been such a huge and influential figure in my personal landscape of faith...Herbert the poet, not Herbert the perfect priest, the one who inspired the heart felt advice (offered, I'm sure, between gritted teeth) "If you meet George Herbert on the road - kill him" ! To actually have to spend time with him once again, to immerse myself in a world view that was second nature to me when I was doing my research some 20 years ago...and to revisit poems I'd nearly forgotten in the interim.
Today the church gives thanks for Herbert, for the huge gift his writing has been to so many through the ages...so here's a poem that proves that he was never one who had it all "sewn up", whether as a man or as a priest.
how should my rymes
Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
My soul might ever feel !
Although there were some fourtie heav’ns, or more,
Sometimes I peere above them all ;
Sometimes I hardly reach a score,
Sometimes to hell I fall.
O rack me not to such a vast extent ;
Those distances belong to thee :
The world’s too little for thy tent,
A grave too big for me.
Wilt thou meet arms with man,
that thou dost stretch
A crumme of dust from heav’n to hell ?
Will great God measure with a wretch ?
Shall he thy stature spell ?
O let me, when thy roof my soul hath hid,
O let me roost and nestle there :
Then of a sinner thou art rid,
And I of hope and fear.
Yet take thy way ; for sure thy way is best :
Stretch or contract me thy poore debter :
This is but tuning of my breast,
To make the musick better.
Whether I flie with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there.
Thy power and love, my love and trust,
Make one place ev’ry where.
The thesis I never completed would have examined Herbert's use of musical imagery to explore our relationship with God...our need to be tuned in to Him if we are ever to sing as we ought...but it's the last verse of this poem that I love most, for its recognition of the reality of life which is never wholly spent on the heights nor in the deep and dark places of the soul...but is always and wholly God's.
In the sunshine and birdsong of a wonderful spring day, I give thanks once again for this priest and poet who encouraged generations to see God in all things, and to do everything as in His service.