Knowing that I would be seeing and experiencing and teaching so many new things this semester, I decided to invite a familiar old friend to join me.
George Herbert died in 1633, but the poems he wrote late in life—largely while serving as a priest in the humble parish of Bemerton—have quietly helped to shape my views of art and language and God for well over three decades now. That’s a pretty big statement, I suppose, but at a more basic level , these poems just seem like me—like the kind of thing I would write if I were a little better with words.
So I’m assigning a couple of his poems every week, and we’ll take a day trip later in March to see his little parish church in Bemerton.
I am not some cutting-edge re-reader of Herbert’s verse, seeing in it things no one has ever seen before. I mostly like in it what most people like: its wit, its honesty, its simplicity. The way a well-turned phrase suddenly flies out and zings you because the poem you’ve been reading has seemed so tame, its words so spare.
The poem “Prayer (1)” is an entire sonnet without a single verb. No action. It’s composed entirely of appositive phrases and clauses describing prayer, and one of the most telling is the simple phrase “heaven in ordinary.” That’s a very good description of Herbert’s poems themselves. Herbert is a specialist in the mundane. He writes of big themes in little terms.
So it should come as little wonder that an abiding theme—perhaps, as some have said, the abiding theme—in Herbert’s poetry is the Incarnation: God become human; the Word become flesh; the heavenly being become the ordinary (read: crucifiable) human body. The Eucharist seems to be at the very heart of Herbert’s imagination, the animating force behind so much of his imagery and even his style.
The important thing to always remember about Herbert, however, is that he is not a simple man. He does not have a simple heart, or mind, or soul—however much he might have wanted those things. He was appointed as Orator of Cambridge University, a post they didn’t just give to any old hack. His poems of that earlier period are eloquent, polished, and witty. They’re also in Latin. This man had a tremendous command of at least two languages. Simplicity in Herbert’s English poems must always be seen not as mere modesty or, worse, as a failure of vocabulary or imagination, but as a deliberate rhetorical choice.
His primary collection of poems is called “The Church,” a body of work that both begins and ends with eucharistic poems. The opening poem is “The Altar,” a simple penitential prayer insisting that the speaker needs God’s forgiveness and grace:
A broken altar, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart and cemented with tears;
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same.
A heart alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame
To praise thy name.
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
Oh, let thy blessed sacrifice be mine,
And sanctify this altar to be thine.
Mostly monosyllables. When we talked about the layers of the English language in class, I pointed out that almost all of the words in this poem have simple Anglo-Saxon roots, as opposed to the fancier French roots of words like “sacrifice” and “sanctify,” which stand out in the last two lines.
But it’s not at all a simple poem. Following Levitical law—which insisted that the Israelites not craft their altars but rather slap them together with whatever rocks they could find, exactly as they found them—Herbert insists that “no workman’s tool hath touched” the altar of his heart.
Really? Then why does the poem form both a perfect altar shape and the shape of the letter “I”? The visual pun of the poem (“I” = “altar”) seems to contradict what the poem actually says. Did God reach down and cut the interior margins of this poem? Or has Herbert the workman had a hand all along?
How much is earthly, human-made; how much is God? How much is ordinary; much is heavenly? That’s a question at the heart of the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and the daily life of every believing Christian.
Herbert’s last poem in “The Church,” like the first—“The Altar”—is also eucharistic, but here the poet has been promoted from the table (altar) on which the Eucharist is served to a guest at the same table. Christ, characterized as “Love,” invites him in and, after a gentle debate on the poet’s worthiness, convinces him to partake. I love this poem, so here it is in its entirety:
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 lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, 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 marred 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.
Of course, in this context, “my meat” means both “the meat that is mine” and “the meat that is me.” The host is also the main course. In “The Altar,” Herbert seizes upon a visual pun between the shape of the English letter “I” and the shape of an altar; here he seizes upon a connection between “host” as “one who feeds or lodges another” and “bread offered in the Eucharist.” And in neither case does he insist on spelling out the pun. He leaves those puns implicit, letting the complexity lie latent in apparent simplicity.
Those last six words: “So I did sit and eat.” So spare. So plain. And not as easy as they seem. The most difficult part about hospitality, I’ve said to my students—especially for comfortable Americans—is receiving it. It feels good to provide for people. It sometimes feels demeaning to be provided for. We all know (or mostly know) how to be gracious hosts. But there is also such a thing as being a gracious guest.
I was invited to tea by a slightly older couple at church a week ago. There were four of us in the room, and food and tea and snacks and biscuits and dips and sauces and sandwiches for six or eight or ten. It is the English style. We at egg sandwiches made from eggs laid by the chickens out back. We toasted crumpets over the coal fire and smeared them with butter that I’m pretty sure wasn’t vegan-friendly, and also honey from our hosts’ beehives. (With their retirement package, the couple had bought beekeeping courses and all of the equipment they needed to maintain their own hives.)
The irony was that I was invited to that miniature feast when the couple caught me after church on Ash Wednesday. And I walked home, having accepted the invitation, wondering what I could buy or make that would impress everyone. But thankfully, I stopped that line of thought. I just showed up. I actually quoted Herbert to myself, “so I will sit and eat.”
I was treated to the luxury of all that food, and also to a few hours of mature and witty conversation and laughter. What could I bring except my hunger for all of those things, and what could I say except “thank you”?
Remembering Herbert’s poem in that context, of course, reverses things. The poem aims to bring a heavenly experience down to an ordinary context, to make the mystery of the Eucharist feel like visiting a friend for dinner, but it also exalts those ordinary contexts. Using “Love (3)” to reflect on my delightful visit with church friends, however, I was able to think of the tea not just as a quiet evening among friends, but as a revelation of God’s love. A poem like this floats in the middle distance between our mundane and our spiritual lives—or it demonstrates that there is no real distance between those lives.
Word on the Street
The literature that best collapses that distance, I think, is the group of plays collectively known as the the York Cycle. In the Middle Ages, guilds in the city of York produced a series of 48 short plays, each telling a different episode of salvation history from the Bible, from the Fall of the Angels through the Last Judgement. The plays were performed on Corpus Christi day, 60 days after Easter, originally intended to celebrate the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
The plays were performed in sequence on wagons that were wheeled throughout the city, stopping at approximately twelve stations along the way. A resident of York in the Fifteenth Century could have sat on the steps of her local church and seen the entire Bible (and more!) performed, one wagon at a time, right before her eyes over the course of a very long day. The show began at 4:30am, and given the length and number of the plays, it must have continued until at least midnight.
What is wonderful about these plays is that they were performed not by church officials but by professional guilds—often (but not always) linked with the themes of the plays they presented. The Shipwrights presented the building of Noah’s Ark. The Pinners (nailmakers) presented Christ’s nailing to the cross. The Death of Christ was presented by… the Butchers. None of the actors on the wagons were professionals—although some were probably well-practiced and very good. For the most part, they were ordinary people taking on heavenly roles.
Corpus Christi—the body of Christ—is of course the perfect motivation for these plays. What better way to celebrate Christ’s entry into a human context than to literally have the Word of God wheeled into a living, breathing city and performed by its living, breathing citizens? That, in a very real sense, is the Word made flesh.
And at the same time, the ordinary work of those actors becomes dignified and purposeful: a shipwright has something to contribute to the telling of this great story. His work is important in a context larger than his own. God is not only present to me on Sunday; God is present in my daily work—or at the very least my daily work presents a part of God’s great story.
The cycle has been compared to the great medieval cathedrals, like the Minster: built and re-built in pieces by steady human hands over generations, marvelous in its details and difficult to perceive in its entirety, a grand testament both to the glory of God and to the ingenuity of human craft. (I have written elsewhere about the Minster as mediating between the human and the divine.)
In 1998, The University of Toronto hosted a version of the complete York Cycle, with different universities coming in to produce different plays. I was still a graduate student at The Catholic University of America at that time, and I played King Herod in The Slaughter of the Innocents. Ever since that time, I have been eager to visit York and to walk the route my kingly forebears would have ridden on wagons of their own.
I asked students to walk the route that the wagons would have taken, and before I asked them to do that, I walked it myself. And I found—with a laugh—that I had already covered 90% of the route that very day on my morning run. The big routes through the city haven’t changed that much in a few centuries, and these heavenly plays were performed right along my ordinary running path (or vice versa).
Back to the Minster
I was in the city centre yesterday to do some banking (which always frightens me in England) and to pay a bill at the Minster for a workshop our group will be attending next week. Although the Minster was on my way into town, I chose to go there on the way back so that I could linger a bit as a reward for surviving the bank.
Among the many books left in the director’s residence—books brought here by generations of directors and deemed too weighty to pack for the return flight—I had unearthed an index to the windows in the Minster, and I decided that, if all went well at the bank, I would seek out the windows featuring St. Chad.
All went well, and I found the windows. My guidebook told me that one window would show my namesake saving a hart with a crucifix between its antlers. I thought for a second that I could kind of make it out, but then I consulted the book again and realized that I was looking at the wrong window. I moved up one window and, after much scrutiny, well… maybe… no. I just couldn’t see it.
The glaziers who have restored many of the windows in the Minster tell me that, when they take down individual pieces and put them under a microscope, they can discover brush strokes so thin that they are invisible to the naked eye. And all of this in a face that would appear several hundred feet off the ground! Surely this is a testimony to those medieval painters’ belief in the religious value of their work. They didn’t paint those brushstrokes for their own glory, or even for the edification of the illiterate masses. They painted them for the only one who could see them (God).
As I looked around the entire cathedral, however, I realized how very little time I’ve spent there. I don’t know the place from the inside. It had been snowing when I left in the morning, but the sun was clearly out now, because the southern windows were lit up as I had never seen them before. (I mostly go into the Minster for Evensong.) Although the exterior of the building is now a common part of my daily experience, this is not, for me, a church that immediately feels like home on the inside, as Durham Cathedral did. It’s a grand space. Lots of heaven, not much ordinary.
So although I had other errands to run—I needed groceries so that I could cook my weekly Wednesday night dinner for students—I decided to spend a little more time in the Minster. Get to know it a little better.
I naturally gravitated toward the very head of the building: the East Window. The Great East Window, as it is usually and rightly named. It is the size of a tennis court. It is the largest stained class window in England. These are the kinds of facts and analogies used by people who have seen the window when they want to convey its grandeur to those who have not. They fail.
There are wonderful touchscreens on discreet podiums facing the window that allow visitors to select and zoom in on individual panels, getting not only a close-up of the glass but also a textual description of each image.
Having done my detail-work on Saint Chad, however, I decided to opt for the much older technology installed on this end of the Minster: the benches. From previous experience, I knew generally what’s where in the window, but I decided to just sit for a little while and let the total effect wash over me, to let my mind hover in that middle distance between the place where I sat and the actual figures in the window.
The mid-afternoon sun caused not just the glass but the very stones of the building to glow. As one of my students observed, people in Minster tend to move more slowly than usual. And they barely speak at all. It was quite still. It is good to have heaven in ordinary, I reflected, but it is also wonderful to have extraordinary spaces like this in the midst of a workday, a time and place completely apart.
The moment was interrupted by the somewhat high voice of a very old priest on the PA system, who in a posh, impeccable accent announced that Holy Communion would be served presently in one of the chapels. The declaration echoed throughout the space.
“I should go to that,” I thought. “The best way to make a church more your home is—obviously!—to worship there.”
But I didn’t. For some reason, I did not move from the window but instead chose to let the window continue to move me.
After a few minutes, it became clear that the people had assembled for the service, and that the priest’s microphone was still connected to the PA. He said: “It is not our custom in this place to intinct the wafer”—that is, to take the wafer, dip it in the wine, and then to eat it—“so if it is your preference not to take the wine from the chalice, then—”
There came a pause. “Then could you just get back to your seat after taking the wafer and make room for someone else? Very good. Also, does anyone here want a gluten-free wafer?”
“Okay,” I thought with a smile. “There’s the ordinary. Crowd control and food allergies. So the priest does exist on planet earth.”
The voice then returned to its high-church cadence, however, to intone the words “Today, we remember….” but the subsequent pause made it clear that the priest was again consulting his notes. Then he said: “George Herbert.”
My first response to that was my typical one when there seems to have been some divine intervention or revelation in my life: “Oh, come on! Seriously?”
Amid my bustling and business, I had totally forgotten that it was George Herbert’s feast day.
“Oh, alright,” I said resignedly—which is, ideally, my second response to moments of revelation. “Okay. I’ll go.”
I left my seat, walked back the way I had come, followed signs to the next worship service, and found myself maybe forty yards from where I had just been sitting—just off the lower right-hand corner of the Great East Window, behind some scaffolding that people were using to clean it. The table had been down in that little corner of my eye all along.
The priest was droning his way through the liturgy, and I had other places to be.
But I know an invitation when I hear one.
So I did sit and eat.