Today I found myself in the daunting position of leading a quiet day for my clergy colleagues in the deanery - at the beautiful Bernardine monastery of Our Lady and St Bernard at Brownshill. I'm never quite comfortable presuming to "lead" my peers - but I did enjoy revisiting some of my earlier writing and thinking about Herbert to provide three addresses - with a good long gap between.
28 years ago, I ran our of funding and reluctantly abandoned a PhD with the snappy title
“The use of musical imagery in the poetry of George Herbert as a metaphor for the human relationship with God”
My 1st degree was in English lit and I began my explorations from an agnostic literary viewpoint, but I found that it was well-nigh impossible to linger amid what Herbert describes as “the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul” without absorbing at least some hint of the divine. In fact, it was through the heady mixture of Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes and a daily dose of Choral Evensong that God drew me to him – so agnosticism didn't stand a chance!
Fast forward 2 decades and my friend Justin Lewis Anthony published abook, advocating a healthier approach to parish ministry, with the dramatic, even provocative title
“If you meet George Herbert on the road – KILL HIM!”
Justin had succumbed to the view of Herbert as the model of priestly perfection, a devoted pastor whose writings in “The Country Parson” have provided ample ammunition for stressed clergy to use against themselves for far too long. Herbert was quite blatant about it
“The country parson desires to be all things to his parish”
he wrote – before cataloguing every desirable gift, from teaching and preaching to pharmacopia – so it's small wonder that most of us would simply roll our eyes and walk away at top speed. All of this, together with the suspicion that you already think you know Herbert's work pretty well, makes me decidedly dubious about asking you to listen to me today.
But I'm not wholly apologetic about inviting you to engage with the poetry of Herbert afresh...As I said, spending time with him was an important stage in my own faith journey – Though we might tend to think that he was such a sunny soul that his writings have little to say to us in a world where ministry has changed almost beyond recognition and the life of faith is rarely sweet and easy, he might just surprise you. Even those hymns which we sing most regularly include traces of a darker reality – mess and mystery, God's absence causing disorder and jarring dis-ease in place of harmony and grace. The fact that we encounter him most often when we sing his words as hymns means that the tune can subvert the meaning of the poem...So, in
“King of Glory, King of peace” (Praise 1) we pass smoothly over his painful consciousness of guilt. We chorus obediently
“Though my sins against me cried” but never stop to consider that feeling of contending with an army of rioting inner voices that threaten to drown out the the faltering voice of the person we aspire to be...Herbert's sins are witnesses for the prosecution as he finds himself on trial – and though we move swiftly on to celebrate the mercy God shows as judge “Thou didst clear me” this doesn't completely resolve the preceding tumult. We are carried on the gentle tune past the frantic desperation of a writer wracked with sobs as we sing cheerfull “thou didst note my working breast” - and barely pause for breath ourselves at all! The tranquil cadences of tune and rhyme working together seem to guarantee that peace is a foregone conclusion – but the lived experience is nothing like as tidy or harmonious. Perhaps this is why Herbert writes poetry, rather than simply journalling his inner struggles...No stranger to the dark night of the soul, to God as the great Absentee
(“Thy absence doth excell all distance known” he wrote in The Search) his constant quest is to arrange the chaotic jangling human experience so that he has some sense of control and order, creating harmony in metre and rhyme at least, as a way of holding unruly feelings in check.
That idea of harmony is crucial to Herbert's personal faith...Again and again he uses music as a metaphor for our relationship with the Creator...In our prayer and praise we catch the faintest echo of the everlasting song of heaven – but so very often our lives are out of tune..creating unwelcome discord where there should be peace and concord. This is very real to Herbert, whose sense of his own sin is as keen as his vision of the overarching perfection of God in creation....
I think that sometimes the perfection of his verse makes us miss the sense of painful aspiration. He so wanted to live a holy life – and was so consistently appalled by his continuing sinfulness: ‘I could not use a friend as I use thee’; - he says to God...
Like St Paul he is challenged by his own confusion and inconsistency, as he repeatedly does not do the good that he longs to...
‘I will complain, yet praise;/
I will bewail, approve:/
And all my sour-sweet days/
I will lament, and love.’;
Sometimes, it seems that God is absent, forsaking Herbert as surely as he forsook the psalmist. So in Denial, we encounter the poet is knocking urgently on heaven's gate – but seeming to find nobody at home, and here even the semblance of an ordered world is lost. Instead we share a sustained experience of doubt and abandonment that is frightening in its intensity
When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears,
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse;
My breast was full of fears
My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
“As good go anywhere,” they say,
“As to benumb
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come!
But no hearing.”
O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! All day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.
Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipped blossom, hung
O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.
This is no mere intellectual struggle but an agonised lament, in which his whole being is caught up in chaotic earthquake of emotion...So, the structure of the poem breaks down too...Try and work out the rhythm of the piece and you'll see what I mean...His heart is broken, his breast full of fears. Here, knees and heart are numb with crying out day and night to God -"My heart was in my knee" -but still God is silent and unresponsive. The final line of verse 3 "But no hearing"is repeated in verse 4. Nothing the poet can say or do seems to pierce God’s "silent ears" – silent because they are stopped to the pleas of distraught humanity – but also embodying the divine silence the poet experiences. Further, it is God who has given mortal man (verse 4) the capacity to cry to God, and then not to hear…Is God wantonly cruel? Where is he? What, oh WHAT, is going on? God invites us to share our deepest pain with him, and then seems impervious to our struggles – busy with something more interesting, like the infinitely various designs of a snowflake perhaps. It seems monstrously unfair that in the penultimate verse the soul is seen to be laid aside, a broken viol abandoned in a corner "Untuned, unstrung"....
Does God have no use for it, for us, after all?
In her commentary on this poem, Helen Wilcox sees the coming together of the musical metaphor and the metaphor of war of verse 2: an unstrung bow cannot even send arrow prayers.
In the last verse, the narrative of the rest of the poem is replaced by a prayer that God will indeed meet with the soul and bring tune and harmony. Herbert finally allows harmony to come in the rhyming sequence:disjointed rhyme in the first five verses is replaced by a rhyming last line in the last verse. The final order in the words mirrors the new order to be found by the soul:outer form and inner spirit find harmony. and desolation is redeemed as Herbert once again celebrates a convergence of his mind with God's.
So a troubled and troublesome period is brought to a tidy conclusion but that, in itself, doesn't make Herbert helpful reading for those striving to find God in all situations, whether of pain or of joy. What does matter, though, is that even in the times of darkness when God's absence is the one certainty, Herbert keeps the one-way conversation going. Again and again he offers us the experience found most profoundly in the psalms of lament -the dogged refusal to leave God alone, the insistence on asking the question “Why” again and again, even when there seems no evidence at all that there is anyone there to answer. For Herbert, as for the psalmist, silence is just not an option. We are designed to communicate with God, to tune our prayers to his melody even if it is set in the darkest key.
I'm reminded of the story of the rabbis who met in the wake of the Holocaust to determine who was to blame...Was it God, or man? They argued and debated while day turned to evening, evening night and night dawn. Finally they agreed that there was no escaping God's culpability. A deep and despairing silence fell. At length, one of their number welaked over to the window and drew back the blind.
“Look,” he said “the sun has risen. It's time to worship God.”
There is nothing else.
To whom else shall we go. You have the words of eternal life....