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George Herbert as Advent Exemplar

by Richard J. Janet, PhD

This article is reprinted from the 01 December 2016 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, with the kind permission of the editor, Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ.

George Herbert As both a liturgical season and a spiritual practice, Advent invites us to consider serious questions about our Christian beliefs, and our fundamental being. Advent teaches us how to ready ourselves for whatever lies ahead in our lives; for the "next big thing," and ultimately for our own death, and the end of time as we know it. The season demands that we consider the act of preparation, and raises questions about what exactly we are preparing for. In the process, Advent cultivates an internal disposition best suited to prepare for the ends of our existence.

The idea of Advent as belief and practice came home to me as I read the opening pages of a recently published book about the 17th century British poet, George Herbert (1593-1633), by John Drury, entitled Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (University of Chicago Press, 2014). The frontispiece to the work includes a quotation from Izaak Walton's 1760 biography of Herbert, recounting the story of Herbert's encounter with a poor man and his broken-down horse on an English country road. Emulating the Good Samaritan, Herbert shared his coat and blessing with the man, even leaving him money "to refresh both himself and his horse." When later upbraided about engaging in "so dirty an employment," Herbert responded beautifully by insisting that he must surely "practice what I pray for." The story made me think of Herbert as a model for both our Christian beliefs, and our practice of those beliefs, in the Advent season.

The first chapter of Drury's book quoted one of Herbert's most famous poems — the third of a series of verses he wrote simply entitled "Love."

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd 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.

Drury praises the poem for its stylistic and emotional sensitivity, and even more so for its brief encapsulation of "Christianity's whole grand biblical narrative of humanity." In essence, this poem incorporates the entire Gospel message, and speaks directly to us about the proper Christian attitude toward faith and life. It is a dialogue between us (as human beings) and God, who is referred to simply as Love. God invites us to a feast, but we draw back out of a sense of guilt and sin. God responds by gently repeating His invitation and asking us if we "lack'd anything." When we reply that we are unworthy to even look at God, God smiles and reminds us that He gave us the very eyes with which to see Him. We continue, amazingly, to argue with God, telling Him that we have misused the gifts He gave us. God reminds us that He paid for our sins, and that the Eucharist commemorates His ultimate sacrifice.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: so I did sit and eat.

Somewhere in that poem lies a lesson for how to prepare internally for God's coming, and for practically everything the Lord will ask of us. We should be neither too humble, nor too proud. We should listen to God, and be guided by Love. We should use the gifts God gave us to see, and respond to his call. We should partake of the sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, as invitations to receive God's grace.

George Herbert's life itself testifies to these lessons. Herbert was born in 1593 to a prominent family in Wales. He proved a brilliant student at Cambridge University, and embarked on an academic career, earning an important university post that brought him national visibility. He was elected to Parliament in the 1520's. He made friends in high places, including the renowned poet, John Donne, and the philosopher-statesman, Francis Bacon. Herbert seemed destined for great things. Like other scholarly young men at the time, he took orders as an Anglican priest. But, unlike most others, he took his priesthood seriously, and eventually became vicar of a small village parish in south central England when shifting political winds frustrated his larger ambitions. He spent the rest of his brief life out of the spotlight, tending to his pastoral duties, and writing poems that would only be published after his death.

Herbert immersed himself in the affairs of his village parish, reveling in the details of his ministry, including a focus on sacred music and church architecture. His poems reflect these interests, as well as the rhythm of the liturgical year. He wrote about Christmas and Lent and Easter and all the major feasts and seasons of the Christian calendar. Indeed, some credit George Herbert with shaping modern ideas about the model Christian clergyman. He was conscientious in fulfilling his duties, and deeply concerned about the souls in his care. The brilliant theologian and academic with high prospects for political advancement (his Cambridge duties had included the responsibility to comment on current affairs as the official spokesman for the University) seemed content to lead the life of a simple pastor.

But, as his poems also show, Herbert's apparently simple lifestyle did not constitute an idyllic retreat from the world. He struggled internally with concerns about his decisions and doubts. He wrote a series of poems under the title "Affliction," the first of which reviews his life and all its apparent joys and disappointments, including his brush with fame and his bouts of ill health, before concluding with the following lines:

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show:
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree —
For sure, then, I should grow
To fruit or shade; at least, some bird would trust
Her household to me, and I should be just.

Yet, though Thou troublest me, I must be meek;
In weakness must be stout:
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah, my dear God! Though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love Thee, if I love Thee not.

Once again, Herbert is in dialogue with God, asking God what he should do with his life, for his great learning cannot help him answer that question. Herbert even wishes at times that he was a tree, for at least then he would be productive and useful for his fruit, his shade, and as home for the birds. As it is, Herbert feels troubled and weak and looks for certainty, perhaps in service to some other idea or commitment. This amazing last stanza sees Herbert go through several emotions, from a stoic resolve to put up with his lot, to a determination to abandon God altogether, and finally to an honest admission that true love requires absolute openness with God. "Let me not love Thee, if I love Thee not" is Herbert's recognition that love cannot be less than total and honest, that if love is compromised, it is not love at all. Again, an Advent lesson — as we prepare for what is to come, we might acknowledge our weakness and uncertainty, but we cannot compromise on our love and total commitment to God. If we do so, then we do not love at all.

Among the greatest difficulties of Herbert's life was his chronic ill health, probably stemming from what we now recognize as tuberculosis. Fittingly, his meditation on his own death is best expressed in a poem entitled simply "Life":

I made a posy as the day ran by:
Here will I smell my remnant out, and tie
My life within this band.
But Time did beckon to the flowers, and they
By noon most cunningly did steal away,
And wither'd in my hand.

My hand was next to them, and then my heart:
I took, without more thinking, in good part
Time's gentle admonition:
Who did so sweetly death's sad taste convey,
Making my mind to smell my fatal day,
Yet sug'ring the suspicion.

Farewell, dear flowers, sweetly your time ye spent,
Fit, while ye liv'd, for smell or ornament,
And after death for cures.
I follow straight without complaints or grief,
Since if my scent be good, I care not, if
It be as short as yours.

Like the flower that withered in one short day after being plucked by Herbert's hand, the poet recognizes the brevity of human life and resolves, like the flower, to "follow straight without complaints or grief." Like the flower's scent, Herbert wants his life to be measured by its beauty and goodness, and not by its length. This poem reminds me of a funeral Mass of a young child I once attended. The priest recognized the tragedy of the child's early death, but told a story about an earlier funeral he had celebrated for a man who had been married to his wife for 62 years. When he comforted the women with the consolation that she had her husband for 62 years, she responded simply, "it seems like a walk around the park." In other words, no amount of time is long enough. All human lives are brief and, thus, should be measured, not by length, but by the love created and shared during whatever time we have to live.

Advent, with its focus on beginnings and endings, the coming of Christ at Christmas, and the Second Coming at the end of time, holds the same lesson. Preparing for life is preparing for death, and vice-versa. Do not count the time, count the blessings and the beauty and the love generated during the time. Herbert sensed that. He died in 1633 at the age of 39 years. Shortly before he died, he sent his poems to a friend with instructions to publish them only if he thought they might "turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul." Even in death, Herbert looked to the needs of others, and to his own need to share love.

Before he died, however, Herbert celebrated. He noted the turn of the seasons, and the passage of time marked by the liturgical calendar. Nature and prayer came together for him, as reflected in his Christmas poem. The poem begins with Herbert taking a pleasant horseback ride in the country, until he tires and seeks rest in a local inn. There he finds Christ, "wrapt in night's mantle, stole into a manger." Herbert longs to brighten his own "dark soul" to provide a home for Christ, and at the end of the poem offers a play on words as he looks for a Sun/Son to illuminate his world. As he does so, he sings and compares his soul to the shepherd and his flock. The country parson in Herbert comes out as he likens his hymn to nature, and praises Christ as the true Sun/Son and candle-holder for the universe.

The shepherds sing: and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for thee?
My soul 's a shepherd too: a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is thy word: the streams, thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Out-sing the day-light hours.
Then we will chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord: wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.

Given our brief look at his life and poetry, how would George Herbert answer the questions I posed at the beginning of this essay? I think Herbert would say that the keys to preparing for Advent, and for life itself, would look something like this —

  • Be humble, but not too humble (for we are children of God invited to enter into His Love).
  • Acknowledge our problems, but don't give into them for that would be to compromise on our commitment to love God and others.
  • Know that death is near, but do not fear it for life is measured not by time but by our capacity for love.
  • Carry on a constant dialogue with God, and don't be afraid to question and even disagree, but always listen for God's part of the conversation.
  • Immerse ourselves in life, in both the ordinary and the extraordinary things that surround us.
  • Pray and celebrate in rhythm with the seasons, offering our minds and voices to God as we give thanks for His many blessings and graces.

I think that with a little more George Herbert in my life I would be less prone to worry about what's to come and more likely to practice the true spirit of Advent.

Article written 01 December 2016

Dr. Richard J. Janet is a professor of history, and director of the Thomas More Center for the Study of Catholic Thought and Culture at Rockhurst University, Kansas City, Missouri.

Copyright © 2016 Homiletic & Pastoral Review
Reprinted by permission of copyright owner.

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