Feast of the Epiphany: The worst time of year for such a journey

Along the Camino de Santiago, April 2014

Along the Camino de Santiago, April 2014

It is not commended to stand ‘gazing up into heaven’ too long; not on Christ himself ascending, much less on his star. For [the Magi] sat not still gazing on the star. Their vidimus begat venimus; their seeing made them come, come a great journey.

— Lancelot Andrewes, sermon for Christmas Day, 1622[i]

 

When T. S. Eliot wrote his great Epiphany poem, “Journey of the Magi,”[ii] he borrowed freely from a Nativity sermon preached in 1622 by the English bishop, Lancelot Andrewes:

A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.’

Andrewes, who oversaw the translation of the King James Bible, had a gift for elegantly expressive language, and Eliot altered the original only slightly to make the first lines of his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

The liturgical and theological focus of today’s Feast of the Epiphany is the universal reach of the Light of the World. The three Magi, coming from faraway places to do homage to the Christ Child, signify that whatever was revealed in Bethlehem was not confined to a single culture, language, or tradition. The babe in the manger would ultimately spark recognition in every longing heart.

But Eliot’s particular focus is on the psychology and spirituality of the Magi themselves, or at least the one whose voice speaks the poem. He recites the complaints common to pilgrims: bad roads, bad weather, bad food, unpleasant companions, inhospitable strangers, and the homesick yearning for one’s own bed. He wonders whether the journey might be ‘all folly.’

The bleak desert crossing resounds with haunting echoes of The Waste Land, heightening the relief we feel when the traveler finally comes to “a temperate valley … smelling of vegetation.” But instead of the sweet, unblemished beatitude of a Nativity scene, the Magus is baffled by a series of disparate sights whose meanings are still in the future: vine branches, empty wine-skins, pieces of silver, three trees on a hill, the pale horse of the Apocalypse.

As for the actual moment of arrival, of seeing the long-sought Epiphany, it is described with the utmost reticence, as though words must fail before such a mystery:

… it was (you may say) satisfactory.

Then what? The Magi go back home, to the world they knew,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

Whatever Bethlehem had shown them, nothing in their lives would ever, could ever, be the same. This holy Birth had also brought a kind of death: the ‘old dispensation,’ whatever the Magi had settled for up to now, could no longer stand. The world of the past – erring, broken, lost, in love with the wrong thing – was being swept away. Behold, I make all things new.

In Andrewes 1622 sermon, he played nicely upon the Latin verbs for having seen (vidimus) and having come (venimus). What the Magi saw made them come. ‘Their vidimus begat venimus.’ But in our own day, says the preacher, we are apt to hold ourselves back, and resist the journey of transformation:

And we, what should we have done? Sure these men of the East will rise in judgment against the men of the West, that is with us, and their faith against ours in this point. . . . Our fashion is to see and see again before we stir a foot, specially if it be to the worship of Christ. Come such a journey at such a time? No; but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year, till the days longer, and the ways fairer, and the weather warmer, till better travelling to Christ. Our Epiphany would sure have fallen in Easter week at the soonest.

I am well acquainted with such spiritual procrastination. It is a practice not so easy to shed. We do prefer our comfort zones. Or as Andrewes put it, ‘We love to make no great haste.’

And yet, despite our best evasions, there may come a time when we find ourselves on a strange and arduous journey into that Place where everything is changed. Whether we choose the journey, or the journey chooses us, doesn’t really matter. In either case, once we have encountered the Epiphany, we will be ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.’

And then what?

 

[i] Andrewes’ complete sermon may be found here.

[ii] “Journey of the Magi,” T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1974), 99

Brief prologue for the Nativity

Apse mosaic, Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato, Murano, Venezia (12th century)

Apse mosaic, Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato, Murano, Venezia (12th century)

Dear readers, in these last hours before the Feast of the Nativity, let me wish you all a very Merry Christmas. Thank you for your interest in what happens here, and for your thoughtful reading and supportive comments. I am grateful for your visits. May the twelve days of Christmas bring you much joy and blessing.

In lieu of a post today, I offer these three passages as prologue to Christmas Eve:

Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth in a manner beyond understanding to the Word who is, in all eternity. Rejoice, therefore, universe, when you hear it heralded: with the angels and shepherds, glorify the Holy One who chose to be seen as a new-born babe, while remaining God in all eternity.

— Preparation of the Nativity, Orthodox liturgy

“I suppose they try to make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?” “Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.” “But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.” “Can’t I?” “I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.” “Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.” “But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.” “But I do. That’s how I believe.”

— Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

 

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years…

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper…

When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me…

I am food on the prisoner’s plate…

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills…

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden…

I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge…

I am the heart, contracted by joy…
the longest hair, white
before the rest…

I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow…

I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit…

I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name…

— Jane Kenyon, “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks”

 

Related post: How Can This Be?

Tending the lamps of holy imagination

Dreaming in Venice

Dreaming in Venice

We are in the fifth day of the Venice Colloquium, a small gathering of Christian creatives to “dream the Church that wants to be.” We will finish our work on Sunday in time to attend the mass for All Saints Day in the Byzantine splendor of St. Mark’s cathedral.

The conversations and presentations have been extremely rich, and I will be reporting on them in future posts, once I have begun to absorb and process what has happened here. In the meantime, while I have a rare free moment to attend to my blog, let me try to put into one simple statement the sense of need, perhaps even crisis, which has brought us together:

The practice of holy imagination is like a sanctuary lamp in the life of the Church. If not duly attended to, it is in danger of going out.

(In the very moment of writing that statement, the church bells of Venice began to ring all over the island where we are staying. I’ll take that as a “yes.”)

What would the Church be like if that lamp were to be extinguished? I had a vision of that dismal outcome yesterday, in a video by artist Theaster Gates at Biennale, the international art exposition being held in Venice.

Part of an installation called “Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyrs,” the video filled the entire wall of a dark room. Shot inside the dim space of a ruined church, it revealed few details of the interior. The two men who moved about inside were faceless shadows. It suggested to me a lower level of Dante’s Inferno, an impression reinforced by the repetitive violence of their actions.

Lying on the floor amid the rubble of a fallen ceiling, there were two heavy doors. They had become useless, meaningless, no longer attached to any place of entry or exit. The two men would circle the doors once or twice, raise one or the other to an upright position, and let it fall with a great echoing crash. They did this over and over, as if condemned to enact this enigmatic distillation of their wounded condition for all eternity. A wailing offstage blues singer was the only other sound, a cry from the depths of darkness.

The space between the image and the opposite wall was not wide, so that the viewer could not keep much distance from what was being projected. It was like sitting in the front row of an Imax theater. There was no escaping the image. I was immersed in it, and that added to its claustrophobic feel.

But after about ten minutes of this, the camera slowly panned away from the men and the doors, toward the end of the church where the altar had been. The apse wall was broken down, open to the sky. Being able finally to see light breaking into all that darkness seemed like the rolling away of Christ’s tombstone. And just below the roofline, one piece of unbroken wall remained, painted with a fresco of the Last Supper. The holy image was ancient and faded, like a memory not yet entirely lost.

Whatever the artist’s specific intentions, I came away from that screening room with an indelible image of a desolate church robbed of its light. Such a prospect is why we tend our lamps so religiously. It is why we have come to Venice.

But that ruined church is no place to leave you, dear reader. Instead, let me offer another image of the Church, in which “she” is depicted an old woman in her declining years. It is by Mark Harris, a member of our Colloquium, and he graciously permitted me to publish it here. I promise you, it ends well.

She is an Old Woman

She is an old woman,
Not well respected over the years.
Shuffling off to the bathroom
She looks in the mirror
And does not see the face of Christ.

Whatever happened to my body,
She wonders, whose parts all work
Together for good?

She has been ravaged
By some who claimed to be lovers,
And by others who had no such pretensions,
Only opportunistic rapine desire.

For the moment before the first service
She is quiet. She gathers the shambles
Of her dignity and rambles
Off to prayer and Thanksgiving.

“Who will come today, who will come.?
Will they remember me in my glory,
When I was all light and lovely?
Will they come in pity, shame and wonder
That I am still here?”

The word goes around that it was all a story,
That she was never beautiful and never lithe.
She hears them whispering. She feels
Their eyes as they wait to see her die.
They will scurry over her remains
Looking for something to take away:
A remembrance of glory past,
If glory was there at all.

She laughs softly,
And in a resurrection moment
Almost worthy of the second coming,
She is consumed in fire.

Renewed and beautiful,
She lifts the veil that hides her face.
“Behold,” she says,
“I make all things new.”

The summer’s final mass

A perfect summer moment: Blue moon rises on the last day of July 2015.

A perfect summer moment: Blue moon rises on the last day of July 2015.

T-shirts, cut-offs and a pair of thongs,
We’ve been having fun all summer long.

– Brian Wilson & Mike Love

Piecemeal the summer dies ….
The field has droned the summer’s final mass.

– Richard Wilbur

In seventeenth century landscape painting, there was a tendency to idealize, to suspend change and death by capturing an eternal present. Through meticulous depiction of nature’s details, the fantasy of a deathless Arcadia was made concrete for the viewer. Inside the frame, there was no time, no death. Gazing upon one of these pictures, a character in Dostoevsky exclaims,

Here lived beautiful men and women! They rose, they went to sleep, happy and innocent; the groves rang with their merry songs, the great overflow of unspent energies poured itself into love and simple-hearted joys… The sun poured its rays upon these isles and the sea, rejoicing in its fair children. Oh, marvelous dream, lofty illusion![i]

The painting in question was Claude’s “Acis and Galatea.” And indeed, as the lovers embrace in their tent along the shore of a lovely harbor, it seems a perfect moment of harmony and bliss. But will it last? Claude has placed subtle harbingers of change within the scene. The sun is about to set. Polyphemus, the giant who will soon despoil the lovers of their happiness, lurks in the distance – not yet arrived, but on his way. Claude seems to find a heightened sweetness in such mortality; brevity breeds intensity. But Acis and Galatea might take a different view. We’ve been having fun all summer long. Why can’t it go on forever? But there you have it: golden ages, lovers, summer idylls, T-shirts, cutoffs, thongs – all carried off by time’s merciless flow.

Last night another summer slipped away. I was sorry to see it go. If only I could make it stay a little longer. And in fact, here on my island, these first hours of autumn seem no less radiant than yesterday. A warm afternoon is promised. But the idea of summer – marvelous dream, lofty illusion! – is unsustainable. Days shorten. Vacations end. Travelers return. Work calls. Schedules resume. The Sabbath rest of carefree hours and idle days is overruled by necessity. We can no longer enjoy the fiction of having all the time in the world.

In “real” life, a perfectly carefree interval of beach time, lawn parties and magical vacations is an unattainable myth. But now and again, when we do pause to breathe, to notice, to play, to be; when we forget time, giving ourselves wholly to the present moment; when we are attentive and receptive to whatever the universe wants to show us, summer draws near to bathe us in radiance.

All we need is the gift of reverie. Henry David Thoreau spent many a summer morning by his cabin door at Walden Pond, sitting quietly in the sun, listening to birdsong, feeling the warmth on his skin. To those afflicted by the pressures of a 24/7 world, this may seem an incredible waste of time. But like the saints who aspired to pray without ceasing, Thoreau dreamt of even more radical experiments in multi-sensory contemplation:

Would it not be a luxury to stand up to one’s chin in some retired swamp for a whole summer’s day, scenting the sweet-fern and bilberry blows, and lulled by the minstrelsy of gnats and mosquitoes?… Say twelve hours of genial and familiar converse with the leopard frog. The sun to rise behind alder and dogwood, and climb buoyantly to his meridian of three hands’ breadth, and finally sink to rest behind some bold western hummock. To hear the evening chant of the mosquito from a thousand green chapels, and the bittern begin to boom from his concealed fort like a sunset gun![ii]

It’s a comic exaggeration, typically deadpan New England humor, but it makes a point. The luxuriance of summer is a standing invitation to surrender to sensation, to unlearn the cultural imperatives of useful employment in order to pay close attention, moment by moment, to the poetry of the given world. Don’t just look. Dive in and get soaked.

Jesus said, “Unless you throw away your phones and cancel your appointments, unless you go outside and let a wandering cloud be your guide, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

As a child, Mary Oliver “spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught.” When she was summoned back to the chalky classroom in the fall, she still treasured the epiphanies of leisure in her heart:

the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,
the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn’t a penny in the bank,
the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.[iii]

And if the rest of us have been likewise receptive, we too will exit the summer laden with the gifts of deeply-lived moments. Some will call them memories and be done with them, but that would be a mistake. They can endure within us as a renewing source. Wordsworth called them “spots of time,” potent concentrations of aliveness by which we are ever “nourished and invisibly repaired.”[iv] And as Emerson recommended, on every such epiphany we should “rear a temple of wonder and joy.”[v]

This summer I never stood neck-deep in a swamp to hear mosquitoes chant, but I did keep watch in a field from midnight to dawn as meteors fell from an August sky. Some were brief flashes in the corner of my eye. Others left bright fiery trails lasting long enough for a good look. The profound nocturnal silence was broken only twice. A coyote howled in the brush around three a.m., and at four-thirty an owl whooshed close over my head – twice. That was it. Nothing much “happened.”

Or everything happened, and that night became a temple of wonder and joy I can return to again and again. Even now, as autumn sweeps in with all its portents of vanishing and loss, there is still a summer inside me.

[i] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Devils

[ii] Thoreau’s Journal, June 16, 1840

[iii] “Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer,” in Mary Oliver, Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004), 35

[iv] William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1799: 1.288-294)

[v] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lecture (Dec. 19, 1838) in Ashton Nichols, The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Movement (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987), 8

Late summer days and the shadows of impermanence

Nelson Cruz

Nelson Cruz

It was supposed to be the Mariners’ year in major league baseball. With a few weeks still left in the regular season, Seattle’s star pitcher has 17 wins, and their best batter has hit 40 home runs. These are great numbers. But the team itself has been out of the pennant race since July. For a long time, the Mariners just couldn’t score when they needed to, lost a lot of close games, and are currently 7 games out of first place, and 6 games below .500. With only 20 games left, their chances of making the playoffs are virtually nil.

So has their season lost all its meaning? Was it all for nothing? If a season is worthwhile only if you win the championship, then only one team can ever stave off meaninglessness. But as basketball legend Bill Russell has noted, in sports “the basic unit of time is the moment. Sports fans and players appreciate each instant.”[i] We enjoy the evening highlights on ESPN even if we don’t follow a particular team, even if our own team is having a bad year, because we are witnessing the timeless essence of the sport: a great pitch, the crack of the bat, a stolen base, a diving catch.

Sportswriter Meg Rowley, in an artful post called “How I learned to stop worrying and love Nelson Cruz,” reminds us that every game, every team, has moments of pure skill and beauty with a value unto themselves, regardless of their relevance to the overall standings. We watch the games even if they don’t “matter” in the long run, because we love those moments.

I once saw Sandy Koufax strike out 18 Giants. I remember cheering and laughing with my dad from a bleacher seat high above right field. I remember Wally Moon blasting a 3-run homer to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. But I didn’t remember, until I looked it up, was the year it happened, or the fact that this dramatic win helped the Dodgers go on to win the World Series. Seasons come and go, fortunes rise and fall, but the special moments endure.

Citing the Mariners’ Nelson Cruz (40 home runs) and the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, who is hitting .351 and will probably win the batting title for a team that is 19 games out of first place, Rowley says that “every season is really about appreciating great performances in the face of eventual failure.” Every team but one will fail in the end. And even the winner is unlikely to repeat next season. “It’s all futile. But guys like Cruz and Cabrera make that futility beautiful … for a couple of at-bats every game, Cruz and Cabrera keep the futility at bay.”[ii]

As I savor the luscious local weather of late summer in Puget Sound, I am also conscious of its imminent departure. No matter how many perfect moments have adorned these summer months, no one gets a winning season in the game with time. The day will come when night falls early, the birds have gone, and it’s too cold to sit outside in the garden with a book.

Emily Dickinson, who loved the “sacrament of summer days,” was haunted by the shadow of impermanence that falls across our sunlit lawns. The times when we forget that shadow, like the brief return of balmy weather in Indian summer, are but a “fraud that cannot cheat the Bee.”[iii] Yet Dickinson’s poetry, in its act of acute noticing, in its cherishing of the beauty which is all the more precious for its brevity, keeps the futility at bay. She could not solve the puzzle of where it was all headed, this ephemeral life. She wasn’t sure whether the future would turn out to be consummation or cessation (to borrow John Dewey’s evocative duality). Despite her inheritance of Christian vocabulary, she was steeped in nineteenth century doubt. But she always stepped to the plate and took her swings, and her readers still share the pleasure of her every at-bat.

I am currently reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, her moving memoir of the generation who came of age on the eve of the First World War. Her descriptions of “carefree summers” before the war are especially poignant because both writer and reader know what is about to happen. When, in 1915, she received news about the death of one of her ‘summer friends’ – the kind of people “with whom one dances and plays games and perhaps flirts a little,” she wrote to her fiancé serving on the front that “it gives one the shock of incongruity to imagine the Angel of Death brooding over one’s light and pleasant acquaintances, and to think of them with all their lightness and pleasantries shed away.”[iv]

The dream of summer as a timeless sabbath from mortality soon vanished in the trenches, and with it many of Brittain’s generation, including her brother and her lover. But did the shortness of those young and precious lives invalidate whatever love and meaning and joy they did experience, however briefly?

Like Emily Dickinson, Gustav Mahler confronted the shadow of impermanence in all of his work. He said specifically of his Second Symphony (“Resurrection”) that he was asking the big questions: “What did you live for? Why did you suffer? Is it all only a vast terrifying joke?”[v] With the vast orchestral intensity for which he was famous, Mahler takes the listener through a sonic storm of anguish and despair, hope and fear, apocalypse and catharsis, until the extraordinary moment when the chorus refutes the turmoil with the astonishing serenity, verging on silence, of its glorious invitation: Rise again.

I first heard the Resurrection Symphony from the third row of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Zubin Mehta conducted, and Jessye Norman led the singers in the exultant affirmation of the finale, as voices, strings, brass and percussion carried us in a gigantic wave of sound across the abyss of loss into the transcendent:

Arise, yes, you will arise from the dead,
my heart, in an instant!
What you have overcome
will carry you to God.

In Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, when a fictional composer describes the final passage of his valedictory work, he captures something of what I experienced that night at the end of Mahler’s Resurrection:

It would be the hope beyond hopelessness, the transcendence of despair … Hear the close, listen to it with me! One group of instruments after the other drops out, and what remains, with which the work dies away, is the high g of a cello, the last word, and the last suspended sound, in a pianissima fermata, slowly fading. Then there is nothing more. Silence and night. But the note that continues to hang and pulsate in the silence, the note that is no more, for which only the soul listens, and which was once the expression of sorrow, is no longer that but changes its meaning, and endures like a light in the darkness.[vi]

In the emotionally charged silence which followed the Philharmonic’s inspired performance, no one dared clap or even whisper. Mehta kept his arms high and extended, seemingly frozen in his final gesture, for a very long thirty seconds, forbidding us to drown out “the note that is no more” with the harshness of applause. Norman’s eyes welled up. Some of the orchestra wiped away tears. It was the closest I’ve come to eternity.

At last, very slowly, Mehta lowered his arms. When they finally reached his side, his shoulders relaxed, and we were all released back into time. We rose to our feet and thundered our joy. Yes, that sublime moment had kept futility at bay. More than that, it had carried us to God.

[i] Bill Russell, Second Wind, quoted in Lapham’s Quarterly: Time, Vol. vii, No. 4, Fall 2014, p. 118

[ii] Posted at http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/just-a-bit-outside/story/good-players-bad-teams-nelson-cruz-seattle-mariners-micuel-cabrera-detroit-tigers-090915

[iii] The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), #130, p. 61

[iv] Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925 (New York: Penguin Group, 2004), 158

[v] q. in Philip Kitcher, Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 141

[vi] ibid., 178

Paying attention

Summer day, Deschutes River, eastern Oregon.

Summer day, Deschutes River, eastern Oregon.

Day creeps after day, each full of facts … And presently the aroused intellect finds … that a fact is an epiphany of God, that on every fact of his life he should rear a temple of wonder and joy.     – Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of today’s first facts was a blackberry that called to me as I ran by at dawn. Blackberries normally ripen in August, but here was one, dark and soft to the touch, ready for harvest in mid-July. Like Moses turning aside from his path to investigate a revelatory shrub, I interrupted my run to taste that precocious berry. How delicious! Sweet sacrament of summer.

This is the day I was born, long ago in another century, and I am celebrating by setting aside tasks and plans to slow down and take time, giving over the hours to what poet Mary Oliver calls “noticing and cherishing.” There are birds to watch, poetry to read, music to play, water to swim in, trails to explore. Or maybe, like Thoreau in his cabin’s sunny doorway, I will just sit among the trees, rapt in reverie, “in undisturbed solitude and stillness.”

After the blackberry, what else will offer itself to my attention?

Never in eternity the same sound –
a small stone falling on a red leaf.

So wrote Jane Kenyon in her poem, “Things,” which shares Emerson’s awareness of facts as epiphanies. But Kenyon, whose own time on earth was all too brief, was keenly aware that such joys are always on the verge of disappearance.

Things: simply lasting, then
failing to last: water, a blue heron’s
eye, and the light passing
between them: into light all things
must fall, glad at last to have fallen.

So much beauty, so many epiphanies. Do we have enough time? Robert Louis Stevenson said that “you have no idea, unless you have tried it, how endlessly long is a summer day.” So today I will try it. I will make an experiment in attentiveness and wonder, gratitude and joy. It is, I know, a luxurious waste of time. But it seems “meet and right so to do.” As photographer and writer Walker Evans reminds us, paying attention is what we were made for:

Stare. Educate the eye.
Die knowing something.
You are not here long.

Heart work and heaven work

Robert White portrait of George Herbert painted 41 years after his death.

Robert White portrait of George Herbert painted 41 years after his death.

Today is the feast day of George Herbert, the seventeenth-century Anglican poet and priest whose remarkable verse was inseparable from his prayer life. As one admirer put it, “Herbert wrote most of it, but God wrote quite a lot.” That’s a proportionality to which every creative, and every priest, might aspire.

Izaak Walton tells a story about a time Herbert set out for a walk with some friends. Suddenly, without saying why, he excused himself and returned to his church. His friends assumed he’d only be a moment, but they waited and waited and he still didn’t come back out. So they went up to a window and peered in. As Walton relates, they “saw him [lying] prostrate on the ground before the Altar; at which time and place (as he after told [his friend Mr. Woodnot] he set some Rules to himself, for the future management of his life.”

The “holy Mr. Herbert,” they called him around his parish. It was a term of affection. In his late thirties he had given up worldly ambitions to enter the priesthood, and he spent the rest of his life at a country parish in the English village of Bemerton. He died of consumption only four years after being ordained. But his famous manual of advice to country parsons proved a lasting legacy, shaping the self-understanding of clergy for generations to come.

And his poetry! Such astonishing verbal images in a century famous for great language, where words could be bent to the subtlest purposes without losing a speck of passion or truth. Herbert’s art, as the Puritan Richard Baxter put it, was “heart work and heaven work.”

He was both poet and priest; indeed, he showed that poet and priest have similar business, the sacramental work of paying close attention, and enabling others to do the same. Another poet, Mary Oliver, has put this perfectly: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, but I do know how to pay attention.”

Herbert liked puns. It wasn’t just a cleverness with language. It was the way he saw the universe: one thing becomes another, like bread becoming God. He often starts with a word or an image, and morphs it into a multiplicity of resonant meanings, or as one critic put it, “he breaks the host of language.” The one is broken into the many so that all the scattered fragments may one day again be made one when God is all in all.

In ‘Church Monuments,’ he’s sitting in church, his mind wandering, and he starts looking at the big marble tombs all around him. First he thinks of his own mortality, “this heap of dust,” but in a few more lines he makes us see the marble monuments themselves crumble into dust, pressing upon us the awareness that everything on this earth must pass away. We are all passing away. And then in one stunning final image, Herbert makes our dust to be the sand in an hourglass, where time is always running out.

flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust… (‘Church Monuments’)

And in the process he makes a nice pun: “flesh is but the glass” makes the biblically literate reader think of “all flesh is grass,” one of the most vivid evocations of mortality in all of literature.

Herbert believed in words. Language was held more dear in his day, and he used it as a ladder to bridge earth and heaven. Grammar itself became a finely tuned instrument of praise. In ‘Prayer I,’ there are almost no verb forms. It’s mostly nouns, conveying a changelessness transcending the busy world of doing: Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age, Gods breath … The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage … Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre, Reversed thunder … Heaven in ordinairie, man well drest … The land of spices, something understood. And in ‘The Call,’ it is nouns that dominate both the stresses and the structure of every verse: Way, Truth, Life  … Light, Feast, Strength … Joy, Love, Heart.

Some of Herbert’s imagery speaks of humankind misreading or misspelling reality, and it was the poet’s job to put it right, to give everything its proper name once again.

We say amisse
This or that is:
Thy word is all, if we could spell. (‘The Flower’)

When Herbert lay dying, he entrusted his poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar. They were, he said, “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 found perfect freedom.” As to whether to publish his manuscript, he left that to Ferrar. “If he think it may turn to the advantage of any poor dejected soul, let it be made public; if not, let him burn it.” Thank God for Ferrar’s good judgment!

The Herbert whom we meet in his poems is a person very much in process: unfinished, imperfect, always aspiring to something higher. He cared deeply about formation and growth – his own as well as that of his congregation. As poet and priest he used all possible art to move those with ears to hear.

Hearken unto a Verser, who may chance
Ryme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.
A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice. (‘The Church Porch’)

As the subject of many of his poems, he used his own life, his own wrestling with God, as a lens for examining the frailty of mortals and the workings of grace. And as his own audience, he used the very process of writing as a form of prayer and self-examination. His poems are both the record of a soul and a source of instruction.

Herbert was extremely honest – even ruthless – about his prayer life. His mind was a “case full of knives,” as he put it, and he was no stranger to doubt, particularly doubt about traversing the abyss between human frailty and divine glory.

He wrestled with God, he wrestled with his own frail and mortal nature. “My searches are my daily bread,” he wrote, “but never prove.” He doesn’t get proof. He gets something better – faith.

Perhaps his signature poem is ‘Love III,’ which Simone Weil called “the most beautiful poem in the world.” I often use it to begin the liturgy of Maundy Thursday, with the congregation taking the part of the guest, and a solo voice speaking for Christ the host.

In the poem, the guest is full of self-abasement: not worthy to be here, not worthy even to look upon the One who invites him to the feast. And yet, the calmly insistent voice of Love will not be denied. There is nothing the guest can say or do that can ever separate him or her from that Love.

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