George Herbert at Pemberton, by William Dyce (1806-1864)
In 1982, John Hazlewood, the bishop who had ordained me deacon and priest, delivered a lecture on the Caroline Divines to the Institute of Spiritual Studies at St Peter’s Eastern Hill (Melbourne, Australia). It was included in a book published by the Institute, Anglican Spirituality. I serialised the lecture on this blog (in October 2012). Here is a repeat of that part of it dealing with poet-priest George Herbert who was commemorated in many Anglican calendars yesterday.
What the Cure d’Ars is to many Catholic priests so George Herbert is to many Anglican priests. His hymns and his poetry, his two major works on Country Priesthood are still published today. Herbert teaches a search and a finding of divine contentment. A relaxation in the Love of God. This inner happiness was upset by sin and destroyed if there was no outward charity towards the poor. The way into such peace was through the daily use of the Prayer Book Liturgy in public and in church. This followed by meditation. A style of meditation that follows the directions of Joseph Hall a contemporary who wrote in his “The Arte of Divine Meditation” 1606:
“Our Meditation must proceed in due order, not troubledly, not preposterously. It begins in the understanding, endeth in the affection; It begins in the braine, descends to the heart; Begins on earth, ascends to Heaven,- Not suddenly, but by certaine staires and degrees, til we come to the highest.”
Herbert came from good Border stock of a large family loyal always to the Crown. He lost his father in childhood and his mother Magdalene married again into the Danvers family who eventually moved to London. Herbert went up to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1610. He had a distinguished career there and became the Public Orator whose task it was to speak in Latin at the visit of any dignitary. As early as 1610 he had written that it was a pity that poetry should not be written seriously for God and his love. He began a course in Divinity and asked his stepfather for book money. Before he was made deacon by John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln in 1624, there is a space in his life and a dramatic about turn. Herbert lost his two most powerful patrons. He was therefore an orphan in the Caroline world of “getting on”. He was earlier a close friend of Sir Philip Sidney and then of Nicholas Farrer. He became a member of Parliament and seems to have been sickened by the brutish behaviour be observed in the House of Commons. He was also enraged at the manner in which Farrer’s Virginia Company had its charter revoked in that year. A circumstance that drove Farrer to be made deacon by Laud. These disappointments and his close relationship with Farrer probably helped Herbert to his deaconing. Two years later he was given a stall in Lincoln Cathedral and the derelict church of Leighton Bromswold very close to Little Gidding.
Herbert raised money for the church’s restoration and Farrer supervised it. In this prebend, as it was called, Herbert undertook to be bound to say Psalm 31 and 32 every day. In this way the canons and prebends of Lincoln Cathedral wherever they might live said the entire Psalter every day. I am not sure whether this custom prevailed anywhere else. He was given the benefice of Fugglestone with Bemerton in April of 1630, was ordained priest September 19th in Salisbury Cathedral.
Isaac Walton, Herbert’s 17th century biographer and admirer, writes of his life at Bemerton:
“Mr Herbert’s own practice . . . was to appear constantly with his Wife, and three Nieces and his whole Family, twice every day at the Church-prayers, in the Chapel which does almost join to his Parsonage-house. And for the time of his appearing, it was strictly at the Canonical Hours of 10 and 4; and then and there, he lifted up pure and charitable hands to God in the midst of the Congregation. And he would joy to have spent that time in that place, where the honour of his Master Jesus dwelleth.”
Walton goes on to say that the effect of this was remarkable in that most of his parishioners and even some Gentlemen went twice a day with him. Those working in the fields were said to stop their work and let their ploughs rest when Mr Herbert’s saints’ Bell rung to prayers, that they might also offer their devotions to God with him. 1 imagine that the saints’ bell was a small one hanging in a cote at the entry to the Choir. The rope would be near the rector’s stall. In medieval days this bell was called the sanctus bell because it rang out at that point at the Sanctus in the Mass and at the consecration of the Elements.
Martin Thornton (in “English Spirituality” p. 258-9) is at pains to point out the similarity between the ancient rule of St Benedict and the Book of Common Prayer. Herbert’s use of that Liturgy was an almost perfect example of that similarity, as was the Little Gidding experiment as well.
While Herbert’s writings are written from the point of view of the Parson he writes just as well for others. In his cover note with which he sent Farrer a copy of “The Temple” he said,
“This contains a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my Soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master.”
Walton adds that Herbert instructed Ferrar to publish the book
“if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor Soul.”
Herbert’s recipe for the soul’s growth flows into the Liturgy in Church, and its affections carry on through personal meditation, which he doesn’t put under the actual heading of prayer and the living out of one’s vocation or role in the community in gentle pastoral care. In the lines 397-401 in the first poem of “ The Temple” he writes about this . . .
“Though private prayer be a brave design,
Yet public hath more promises, more love.-
And love’s a weight to hearts, to eyes a sign.
We all are but cold suitors: let us move
Where it is warmest. Leave thy six and seven,-
Pray with the most: for where most pray, is heaven.”
The word “weight” in the third line means a claim to consideration. The meaning of six or seven in line five means risky behaviour and is derived from dice.
Herbert along with others who shared his spiritual design was imperative about outward reverence. After all sitting down and neither standing nor kneeling, men wearing hats in church, walking about without reverence and using the altar as a desk or even a bench were all common Puritan practices of his day. So the following verse in the above quoted poem goes like this:
“When once thy foot enters the Church, be bare. (bareheaded)
God is more there than thou: for thou art there
Only by his permission. Then beware,
“And make thyself all reverence and fear.
Kneeling ne’er spoiled silk stockings,- quit thy state.
All equal are within the church’s gate.”
Herbert’s spirituality, like that of St Aelred, St Bernard and St Benedict, is anchored in community at the set prayers of the liturgy. This was the pattern extended in Andrewes’ “Preces Privatae” and developed in Bayly’s “Whole Duty of the Christian Man”. Jeremy Taylor advised that one’s prayers had better be short than long, short and frequent but orderly.
It is also anchored in the monthly communion. The care of the suffering, and always in enjoying the world for which Christ died. A death caused by my sin.
Here is “Trinity Sunday”
“Lord, who hast form’d me out of mud,
And hast redeemed me through thy blood,
And sanctified me to do good.-
Purge all my sins done heretofore:
For I confess my heavy score,
And I will strive to sin no more.
Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charity;
That I may run, rise, rest with thee.”
Notice the homely image of mud. The prayer for absolution with its declaration of intention to do better. Then notice the very fleshy heart, mouth and hands to be agents of God and the delight of the last line that sings of freedom and childlike joy.