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/ 27 February 2018

27 February: thanks for George Herbert

The Church of England designates February 27 as a feast day for the pastor and poet George Herbert.

George Herbert was born April 3, 1593, in Montgomeryshire in Wales. He died a month before his 40th birthday on March 1, 1633.

Herbert was an outstanding student at Westminster preparatory school in London. At Cambridge, he distinguished himself in the study of classics.

In 1619, he was elected Public Orator of the University, a prestigious post, but one which made him feel conflicted over his vocation.

In 1626 he submitted himself totally to God and to the ministry of a parish priest, being ordained as deacon and then as priest of a little country church at Bemerton in 1630. There were never more than a hundred people in his church. He recalled of his previous, secular job:

I can now behold the [King’s] Court with an impartial eye, and see plainly that it is made up of fraud, titles and flattery, and many other such empty, imaginary and painted pleasures: pleasures that are so empty as not to satisfy when they are enjoyed.

Herbert was a sickly man and lived only three years in his incumbency before succumbing to a nasty illness.

As he drew near to the end, his close friend Nicholas Ferrar sent a fellow pastor, Edmund Duncon, to see how Herbert was doing. Herbert, ailing, handed Duncon a notebook and begged him deliver it to Ferrar, saying:

Tell him he shall find in it 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, in whose service I have now found perfect freedom.

In it was a collection of 167 poems. Herbert’s friend, Nicholas Ferrar published it later that year, 1633, under the title The Temple. It went through four editions in three years and was steadily reprinted for a hundred years, and is still in print today. That notebook established Herbert as one of the greatest religious poets of all time, though not one of these poems was published during his lifetime.

Herbert called his poems the record of his conflict with God. But through them all, there is the resounding note of solid confidence in God’s covenant with his people. Perhaps the clearest poem about our security lying in God’s providing even our faith and our daily confession is The Holdfast.

I threatened to observe the strict decree
Of my dear God with all my power & might.
But I was told by one, it could not be;
Yet I might trust in God to be my light.

Herbert used his creative gifts to glorify God and to minister to God’s people, telling his friend Ferrar to publish his poems only “if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.” He knew the love of Jesus, and the battles of the Christian life, and said he wanted to express them with “utmost art” and the “cream of all my heart.”

We are thankful for creativity, and that is part of the reason that we are supporting Christian creatives as part of Capital Vision 2020.

But we are also inspired by his spirituality. All 167 of Herbert’s poems are addressed to God himself, and take the form of extended prayers and reflections on God’s love. For Herbert, a poem was nothing: “It is no office, art, or news… but it is that which, while I use, I am with Thee: and Most take all.” His poems are Herbert’s experience of God’s unfathomable riches, set in language which lets others share in them too.

Even if we are not poets, we long to be so earnest in meditating on God’s glories and gifts of grace.

So we might pray, with Herbert in Elixir:

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything,
To do it as for Thee.

Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.

A man that looks on glass, On it may stay his eye,
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.

All may of Thee partake;
Nothing can be so mean
Which with this tincture (for Thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.

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