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Posts Tagged "George Herbert":

Music at Midnight: Taylor Carey

There’s a story that the great Anglican poet and priest George Herbert once made himself late for an important rehearsal by stopping to help a poor man in distress. Herbert re-saddled the man’s horse, and helped him on with his pack, making himself filthy in the process. Upon arriving in the midst of proceedings at the Cathedral, Herbert was asked why he had even bothered to waste his time with such a pathetic figure as the poor man on the road. Herbert replied that his deed would ‘prove music’ to him at midnight, ‘for if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure that I am bound, so far as it is in my power, to practise what I pray for’. ‘And now,’ he added, ‘let’s tune our instruments’.

Music is a theme to which countless Christians have returned when considering matters of social justice. A striking vision of Christian society, after all, is of a well-balanced orchestra in which each player understands both the unique contribution they bring to the sound, and also the context of dependence upon others in which they operate. St Paul’s understanding of ‘gifts’, expounded in his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 12:12), was centred on a vision of diversity and harmony in the Body of Christ, in which each member might exercise their talents as an indispensable part of a greater whole. All the while, as Psalm 69 bids us, we are called to ‘sing a new song’ of praise, ever more closely caught-up in the glory of God. That imperative to perform God’s song afresh often draws seekers of the Kingdom into the wilderness to discover the ‘still small voice’ (1 Kings 19:12) of the One who stands in judgement.

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth firmly believed that no composer could ever be thought to rival the genius of Mozart. In his own words, ‘Mozart has apprehended the cosmos and now, functioning only as a medium, brings it into song’. ‘One marvels again and again,’ he continued, ‘how everything comes to expression in him: heaven and earth, nature and man, comedy and tragedy, passion in all its forms and the most profound inner peace…It is as though in a small segment the whole universe bursts into song’.

The whole universe bursts into song. The point, for Barth, was that Mozart had simply allowed God’s continuous action to take over and shape his art. Mozart’s own emotions and ideas were always responses to, and in the service of, the ‘original music’ which is God’s constant creativity. In the words of Joseph Ratzinger, surely one of the most significant theological aesthetes of our time, ‘the joy that Mozart gives us…is not due to the omission of a part of reality; it is an expression of a higher perception of the whole’. And so, for all that his works present to us the unbearable tragedy of the human condition, and God’s judgement over against us, they also carry over the reality that God’s mercy, forgiveness, and Grace is already forthcoming and overflowing.

How then do we hear God’s ‘music’ in our own lives? One answer is provided by Jesus in an episode recorded by each of the synoptic evangelists. ‘Let the little children come to me,’ says the Lord to his baffled disciples, ‘for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’ (Matt. 19:14). We are to become as children, so that we might inhabit God’s new creation. And, on a practical level, this perhaps means two things above all. Firstly, we are called to a purging of our ‘adultness’, which binds us to our unthinking habits, and continues to perpetuate structural injustice in a broken world. Secondly, by a rediscovery of our imagination (through what Nicholas Lash would call asking ‘childlike’ questions), we are called to an anticipation of the Kingdom. We must live in a world ‘charged’ with the energy of God – ‘It will flame out, like shining from shook foil,’ as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote – and always alive with the possibilities of the Divine. This must be our continual witness, in thought, word, and deed.


So, Herbert was right. The greatest ‘music at midnight’ is the truest resonance of God’s own perfect harmony, echoed through generations of Christians who say the Creed and transform the world. ‘The whole universe bursts into song’. Indeed. And it’s about time we listened.




Celebrating National Poetry Day: Chris Fewings

Today is national poetry day. Anglicans have much to celebrate – our liturgies old and new are loaded with poetry; there’s poetry in any translation of the Bible, not least in the Psalms; there’s poetry in our hymns. Two Anglican priest-poets spring to mind: George Herbert who died of TB in 1633 after a few years as a country parson, and R.S. Thomas, a Welshman with a cut-glass English accent who died in 2000, bequeathing (along with poetry on other themes) many, many poems which question the nature of God and our relationship with him as a scalpel questions flesh. Both were consummate craftsmen and were highly innovative in their use of line and rhythm and metaphor. Both searched their own hearts.

Many people who flirt with George Herbert seem to stick with one poem, ‘Love bade me welcome’, which is a pity. What about the flight of Easter Wings? What about ’God’s breath in man returning to his birth’? Or the spring resurrection in The Flower:

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse?

Maybe it’s the hospitality of ‘Love bade me welcome’ which attracts. Poems can invite us in: the author may have included more than one interpretation for us to explore, or we may bring our own. We might uncover new riches in a well-loved poem many years after we first met it. (In a similar way, when I visit an Anglican church I feel welcome, and sometimes I’m aware of a rich feast: I might help myself to something from the architecture, from the light at the window, from a hymn, from a smile or a kind word. I often feel myself pulled further in towards some undefined second course, some intangible gift.)

So here it is:


Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,

Guilty 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 lacked anything.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here;

Love said, you shall be he.

I the unkinde, the ungratefull?

Ah 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 doth 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.

George Herbert

The last four lines are incredibly compressed. Insert at least one long dramatic pause (after ‘blame’) and imagine what the eyes of guest and host are doing there. After that, like the prodigal son, the guest offers to serve, but instead is offered an outstretched hand to lead him or her to the feast.

But the poem’s yours to read as you wish, George Herbert’s gift to you. In his book The Contagion of Jesus launched on his 90th birthday, the Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore delights in telling us the story of a young friend with no religious upbringing coming across this poem for the first time, aged 17. He thought it described a good sexual encounter, overcoming all his inhibitions. Sebastian writes “Herbert’s poem registers at every level, from the nervous adolescent having his first sexual experience to the divine.”

I keep coming back to the shame/blame lines – Love takes the blame, but we are always trying to claim it back! I’ve used one of the lines in this short poem on my website.

There’s recently been a discussion on this site on whether it’s legitimate to rewrite hymns. The general consensus was that it’s not – still less, then, a revered poem. Yet sometimes I need to tweak or rewrite poems, prayers, Bible verses, creeds to enter more deeply into them. (Wendy Cope has added to my appreciation of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land by rendering it brilliantly in five limericks!) Sometimes it’s a single word I change. It’s a round trip – I end up back at the original, with a deeper appreciation.

So for what it’s worth here’s my moustache on the Mona Lisa (see Marcel Duchamp). It goes a bit hippy at the end.


To George Herbert with love

Life bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back
Unwilling to engage.
But quickfoot life, observed me grow slack
From my first entrance in
Drew near to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here.
Life said, That’s you baby.
I, the undead, the ungrateful?
Ah my deare, I cannot dance with thee!
Life took my hand and smiling did reply
Who made thy feet but I?

I see your point, but I’ve messed up.
I think I’ll just sit this one out and have another drink.

The music came over me in waves. I shut my ears and it seeped into my soul. The room fell away; the sun warmed my cold bare feet on the dewed grass. Life’s hand was still in mine, and catching the dawn of hope in my eyes, pulled me to my feet, towards her, away again, jiving, twirling, swirling, jumping. The music was in the ground, and the dance never ends.

Chris Fewings

For some, church is inaccessible and poetry (or other arts) does some of the job that religion once did: words serve as sacrament, as I wrote on the last national poetry day. Others might approach church as if it were a poem or an anthology. For those whose faith is in prose, a little of the power of poetry to subvert words and juggle them joyfully might not go amiss.



The Church of St Andrew, Bemerton, is known as George Herbert’s Church. It is in the parish of Bemerton. In George Herbert’s day the other little church in the area was St Peter’s Fugglestone which now comes within Wilton parish although in Herbert’s day there was the one parish of Bemerton-cum-Fugglestone. On the 14th June, 1934, the stained glass in the West window, as shown here, which had been given by admirers of George Herbert, from all over the world, was unveiled by the Bishop of Salisbury (Dr St.Clair Donaldson). It depicts the Poet and his great friend Nicholas Ferrar. Caroline Townshend and Joan Howson were responsible for the window’s design and execution.” Photographed by Weglinde, and downloaded from Wikimedia under CCL

The Grace of God: Lent 4


In moments of stress, all humans look to help from outside themselves. The pagan looks around for some wood to touch. Alfie, in ‘My Fair Lady’, says: With a little bit o’ luck, with a little bit o’ luck…

Mindful that Man proposes, but God disposes, devout Christians used to pepper their speech with DV (Deo volente) or D G (Deo Gratias), recognising God as the ultimate arbiter of events.

The Islamic equivalent is obligatory at moments that seem odd to a Westerner. Gulf Air announces ‘thanks God we have landed at Abu Dhabi airport‘, which rather begs the question of whether the pilot is due any share of the credit as well.

I prefer another Arab saying: Trust in God, but tie your camel first..
Islamic fatalism nearly led to the deaths of our family in the 1950s when we were being driven in the foothills of the Himalayas. The brakes failed, the driver threw up his hands and recited the Qu’ranic prayer before death, committing us into the hands of Allah.  Luckily for us, my father (a true Anglican) preferred to take his fate into his own hands. He grabbed the wheel and swerved into the hillside, thus postponing for us all the no doubt interesting moment when we meet our Maker. You will understand why, in the circumstances, I am glad to be an Anglican.


What is the grace of God? There are hundreds of pages on the internet attempting a definition. ‘Unmerited pardon’, as in the case of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:18-24) is a favourite but the grace of God is wider than this and the Greek word charis cannot always be used in the sense of forgiveness. Perhaps the essential thing is that we can all recognise it when we see it.


One aspect of grace is strength given to us by God. This is the basis of many fables – think of the ring in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Popeye’s spinach, and the greeting in Star Wars, May the Force be with you!: I return, as so often, to the Christian allegory of Narnia:

Lucy buried her head in Aslan’s mane to hide from his face. But there must have been magic in his mane. She could feel lion-strength going into her. Quite suddenly she sat up. “I’m sorry, Aslan,” she said. “I’m ready now.”“Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed. But come. We have no time to lose.”

During Joan of Arc’s trial, she was asked if she knew herself to be in God’s grace. By asking her this, her inquisitors hoped to draw out an answer that they could use against her. The Catholic Church teaches that because God’s grace is a gift from God, and because humans cannot know the mind of God, then we cannot know if we are in a state of grace. Joan’s accusers thought that, because she was an uneducated peasant, she would reply yes or no, thereby falling into their trap. But Joan’s answer was this:

If I am not, God put me there, and if I am, God keep me there!

Expressing only the desire to be closer to God, this was essentially a perfect answer.

Today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is traditionally celebrated as Mothering Sunday, with its accompanying readings. If you look at the second reading for Lent 4, however, you will find Ephesians 2.1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Two other sages:

For grace is given not because we have done good works, but in order that we may be able to do them. St Augustine of Hippo

Evelyn Underhill summed up:
Grace is God himself, his loving energy at work within his church and within our souls.

In ‘The Shell’, Amy Carmichael has a vivid metaphor:

Upon the sandy shore an empty shell, beyond the shell infinity of sea;
O Saviour, I am like that empty shell, thou art the Sea to me.
A sweeping wave rides up the shore, and lo, each dim recess the coiled shell within
Is searched, is filled, is filled to overflow by water crystalline.
Not to the shell is any glory then: all glory give we to the glorious sea.
And not to me is any glory when thou overflowest me.
Sweep over me thy shell, as low I lie. I yield me to the purpose of thy will,
Sweep up, O conquering waves, and purify and with thy fullness fill.

The poem ‘Grace’ by George Herbert is one of his deceptively simple ones that repays reading several times to get all the nuances of meaning:

My stock lies dead and no increase doth my dull husbandry improve:
O let thy graces without cease drop from above!
If still the sun should hide his face, thy house would but a dungeon prove,
Thy works, night’s captives: O let grace drop from above!
The dew doth ev’ry morning fall; and shall the dew outstrip thy dove?
The dew for which grass cannot call, drop from above…
O come! for thou dost know the way. Or if to me thou wilt not move,
Remove me, where I need not say, ‘Drop from above.’

The author of ‘Out of Africa’, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), wrote in ‘Anecdotes of Destiny’:

We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!

Finally, Laurence Housman, from ‘Brother Sun’:

‘O hearken, for this is wonder!
Light looked down and beheld Darkness.
‘Thither will I go’, said Light.
Peace looked down and beheld War.
‘Thither will I go’, said Peace.
Love looked down and beheld Hatred.
‘Thither will I go’, said Love.
So came Light and shone.
So came Peace and gave rest.
So came Love and brought Life.
And the Word was made Flesh, and dwelt among us.’

The illustration of the sky is by Audrey Hogan via 12Baskets and of the shell is by Elena Moiseeva, via Shutterstock.

But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three…

…and the greatest of these is love.Corinthians 13.13

Although there are plenty of loving relationships between men and women described in the Bible, you could also say the first ‘battles of the sexes’ are vividly portrayed in the Old Testament. When King David danced in the street before the Lord,  the only reaction of Michal (or ‘Michelle’ as I like to think of her) was to “despise him in her heart” ( 2 Samuel 6). Delilah was very unkind to Samson and, when Herodias was offered anything she liked by Herod, ‘even unto half my kingdom’, she chose the head of John the Baptist on a platter. What lesson are we meant to draw from this? – well, perhaps that when relations between the sexes turn sour, they can turn very sour indeed, with women being notoriously vindictive.

But, while bearing that in mind, Valentine’s Day may be a moment to concentrate instead on when these relationships go well. Without human love, great art is scarcely imaginable: with it, our souls reach the greatest imaginable heights, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes in Sonnets from the Portuguese:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach…


Of course, reaching these heights depends on having a soul in the first place as A E Housman described:

The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do:
My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two.
But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest,
The brains in my head and the heart in my breast.
Oh grant me the ease that is granted so free,
The birthright of multitudes, give it to me,
That relish their victuals and rest on their bed
With flint in the bosom and guts in the head!

Or, as Walter De La Mare put it:

Most wounds can Time repair;
But some are mortal — these:
For a broken heart there is no balm
No cure for a heart at ease –
At ease, but cold as stone
Though the intellect spin on
And the feat and practised face may show
Naught of the life that is gone;
But smiles, as by habit taught;
And sighs, as by custom led.
And the soul within in safe from damnation
Since it is dead.

Unrequited love is no fun for the sufferer but, as W H Auden said:

Let the more loving one be me

Possibly the nation’s favourite definition of true love is Shakespeare’s sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no, it is an ever-fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

So, what is love?

Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. We can only learn to love by loving.

Iris Murdoch


Love comes surging from the power of God,
Its source, its mountain spring, the human heart.

William Langland, ‘Piers Plowman
Poets down the ages, but particularly in England, have explored the parallels between love of men and women for each other, and their love for God – John Donne and Christina Rossetti to great effect, for example.


And here is George Herbert :

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here’;
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
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 doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.


A medieval poet makes the comparison explicit:

All other love is like the moon
That waxeth or waneth as flower in plain;
As flower that blooms and fadeth soon,
As day that showereth and ends in rain.
All other love begins with bliss,
In weeping and woe makes its ending;
No love there is that’s our whole bliss
But that which rests on heaven’s king.
His love is fresh and ever green
And ever full without waning;
His love makes sweet and gives no pain,
His love is endless, enduring.
[Anon], c. 1350

Almost all the above examples are in verse, but here is a modern one in prose:

Brian thought of the day when they had gone walking in Winchelsea marshes. The hawthorn was in bloom…overhead, the sky was alive with white clouds gliding in the wind. Unspeakably beautiful! And suddenly it seemed to him that they were walking through the image of their love. The world was their love, and their love was the world; and the world was significant, charged with depth beyond depth of mysterious meaning. The proof of God’s goodness floated in those clouds, crept in those grazing sheep, shone from every bush of incandescent blossom – and, in himself and Joan, walked hand in hand across the grass and was manifest in their happiness. His love, it seemed to him, in that apocalyptic moment, was more than merely his; it was in some mysterious way the equivalent of the wind and sunshine…His feeling for Joan was somehow implicit in the world, had a divine and universal significance. He loved her infinitely, and for that reason was able to love everything in the world as much as he loved her.

Aldous Huxley‘Eyeless in Gaza’

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