Singing the song
King of glory, king of peace – I WILL love thee
A decision has been made – an act of will as deliberate and determined as that which we encounter in the marriage service
This is to be the course of Herbert's life, through good and ill.
Contemplating his own mortality in “The Forerunners”, he faces the same griefs and fears that so often accompany age and frailty – but repeatedly pulls himself back to a statement of stubborn belief “Thou art still my God”.
Rowan Williams has written of Herbert's struggle with the question
“If God is in the environment, what does it mean when the environment looks terrible...and goes on to speak of his “Sustained exploration of what it is to let go of an assumption that assurance of God's grace can be tied to positive feelings...Faith is the glorifying of God as God, not the glorifying of God as provider of attractive spiritual experience; salvation rests not only on how we feel, or what we understand, but only the radical willingness to go on standing in the presence of God's judgement and mercy”
For me, as an off-the-scale “F” in Myers Briggs terms, this is a huge challenge – but it only increases my admiration for Herbert, who is prepared to go on praying “Teach me my God and King in all things thee to see”, no matter what those things might look like, or FEEL like.
God is inextricably involved in the world's pain, whether as cause or participant scarcely matters. Though we may declaim “Let all the world in every corner sing, My God and King” and hear triumphant fanfares of universal praise, we could also pause to remember that corners are dark and undistinguished places where dust and decay might lurk – or we ourselves hide when life's messy reality overwhelms us. Even here, says Herbert, from his gloomy corner – even here God is sovereign, and we are called to praise him “seven whole days, not one in seven”, no matter what. Herbert is steeped in the Anglican tradition of Scripture prayed as liturgy (in that same hiim the calling of the church is to something very much like Choral Evensong “The Church with psalms must shout”
Herbert's God is the God of psalm 139...the God whom we find even if we take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea...the one who penetrates even the thickest darkness, as though it was clear as the day. Whatever our current perception, he asserts that God is present..Moments of exalted delight can be cherished but they cannot ultimately be enshrined even in the perfection of verse. Here's The Temper – a title in which Herbert plays on both the idea of tempering steel and his own extremes of emotion....
How should I praise thee, Lord!
How should my rhymes
Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
My soul might ever feel!
Wouldn't that be easy? And enjoyable too...a faith that is one long summer's afternoon. But unfortunately it's not reality....so as the poem continues Herbert enables us to build a bridge, to give voice to our faltering belief that God remains God amid cataclysmic disaster, personal tragedy – or even the round of APCMs...
Although there were some forty heav'ns, or more,
Sometimes I peer 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
crumb 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 poor debtor:
This is but tuning of my breast,
To make the music better.
Whether I fly 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'rywhere.
Again he reaches the place of harmony. It seems that for Herbert the process of writing out his feelings in poetry enables him to reach a resolution – but the process of tuning and tempering him (think of Bach's Well-tempered Klavier) is never easy...though the end more than justifies the means.
Sometimes it is not Herbert but God himself who is re-tuned.
Easter was originally two separate poems, brought together in one in a structure that reflects the structure of many lute-songs of the day in which a more stately opening section, based on a pavane, was followed by a joyously leaping galliard. Here the exalted invitation of the first verse, 'Rise heart;thy Lord is risen',and the musical images of verses two and three, find their fullest expression in the song of praise of the final three verses.
RIse heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise Without delayes, Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise With him mayst rise: That, as his death calcined1 thee to dust, His life may make thee gold, and much more, just. Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part With all thy art. The crosse taught all wood to resound his name, Who bore the same. His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key Is best to celebrate this most high day. Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song Pleasant and long: Or, since all musick is but three parts2 vied And multiplied, O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part, And make up our defects with his sweet art.
The poet draws on Scripture to illustrate the poem: the words of praise from Psalm 57:8-10 and the theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans, with its exploration of how people are made right with God - justified - through Jesus’ death on the cross. Christ, stretched out in death on the wood of the cross, becomes God’s instrument, playing a melody of love to the world. The heart responds to the melody by joining with it, as instrumentalists join together in consort to make music. But since none can sing this tune perfectly, a further strand needs to be woven: that of the Spirit who makes up 'our defects with his sweet art'.
In the following song of joyful celebration, the poet sees the day of Christ’s resurrection as unsurpassed in glory. 'Can there be any day but this' - the sun that rises each day of the year cannot shine as brightly as the Son of God as he brings light to the world – and the glory of this day will never come to an end, but shine forever.
And so at last God and sinner are reconciled so it is time to give voice to prayer...
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, 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 drest,
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise;
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices, something understood.
Reading that can feel rather like hearing in swift succession all of those parables of the Kingdom – it's a bit like a mustard seed – a merchant – a man sowing seeds – a woman sweeping a room...Just as you settle down to focus on one idea or image, it is replaced by another, - like trying to hold onto mercury .This is a sonnet with no main verb, but with a succession of metaphors tumbling over one another, suggesting that ultimately prayer cannot be described, only occasionally experienced, for in it we are touching ultimate Mystery.
Both the Kingdom – AND Prayer – are concepts that are beyond the normal range of our understanding.
So as we try to explore them, we get brief glimpses of the truth – but need to remember that the truth is always greater..How can we be in conversation with the creator of all things? What do we think we're doing when we come to God with our agenda?
No wonder we struggle.-so that there's a risk that you might emerge more confused than enlightened
Prayer is of that of God in us reaching out to God once more – God's breath in man returning to his birth...It is terrible and awful
“Engine agains th'Almighty, sinner's towr, Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear”
But it is also simple, gentle, “the six days world transposing in an hour” ( as Creation is retuned to a key that matches God's) and becomes“a kind of tune which all things hear and fear”. It is majestic, but simple – remote but intimate...Here is God encountered within the ordinary and everyday. So the phrase ‘Heaven in ordinary’ suggests not only the bread and wine of the eucharist, ‘the church’s banquet’, but also God descending to our ‘ordinary’ level, a meaning strengthened by the 17th century use of the word ‘ordinary’ for a fixed-price meal in a tavern. ...and of course what is ordinary for heaven is humanity at its very very best...
I love the ambivalence of “Church bells beyond the stars heard”...are these our bells, making themselves heard on high – or a faint echo of heavenly bells beyond the stars heard here on earth...Prayer, at its best, is a two way process...but though we cannot define or confine it, at the end it is something that we know, hold and practice almost by instinct...not something to spend time examining but rather something understood...needing no further words of explanation or commentary.