Friday, February 27, 2009

The Parson and Poet

George Herbert's mother prayed that he would enter the ordained ministry of the Church of England.  His friends and supporters pooh-poohed that as a bad idea: the clerical state was far beneath George's abilities.  In the end he listened to both of them.

Born in 1593 in Montgomery Castle on the Welsh border to an ancient and aristocratic family, well connected to the monarchy, Herbert went on to earn degrees from Trinity College, Cambridge, later becoming a Fellow of the College and Public Orator of the University.  In May, 2007, I had the privilege of being in St. Mary's Church, Cambridge, where Herbert often orated.  He followed a path towards high political office and, at first, seemed to covet such.  Unfortunately, his royal patron King James I (as in KJVersion of the Bible) died.  However, he did succeed in briefly serving as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons, along with his friend and fellow, Nicholas Ferrar, whose Little Gidding shrine I also visited: a very "holy" place.  Both of them became disillusioned with political life, at length, and resigned their seats.

After much thinking and praying, George Herbert concluded:  "Though the iniquity of the late times have made clergymen meanly valued, and the sacred name of priest contemptible, yet I will labour to make it honourable by consecrating all my learning, and all my poor abilities, to advance the glory of that God that gave them."  And so he did.

Herbert was ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln in Lincoln Cathedral in 1626, and was made a Canon of the Cathedral, a "big gun", so to speak! Through the graces of King Charles I, he was appointed Rector of St. Andrew's, Bemerton near Salisbury, in 1630 and remained there the rest of his life, which, unfortunately was quite short.  He only attained 40 years.  Nevertheless, he was much beloved for his compassionate pastoral care and ministry there.  He also left us all an incredible legacy in his writing, both of prose and poetry, some of the most beautiful lyrics of which are used as hymns in the Anglican/Episcopal Churches.  Before his death he entrusted his poetry to his close friend, Nicholas Ferrar, who had them published later.  

My absolute favorite among many of his poems has to be Love III:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack'd any thing.

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? A my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doeth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
(A Selection of Poems by George Herbert,
chosen & introduced by Ruth Etchells
A Lion Book, 1988)

George Herbert's legacy is, perhaps, best encapsulated in one of his brief comments:  "Nothing is little in God's service."


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