Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace: George Herbert’s “Denial”

Gianlorenzo Bernini, St. Jerome (Siena Cathedral, 1661-1663). The saint holds the crucifix like a violin.

“Negative grace” . . . is experienced as a game of “take-away,” in which God strips us, removing things that are barriers to a naked confrontation. God takes away distraction after distraction, until our time and space take on the harsh contours of the desert.”

–– W. Paul Jones [i]

Thus in the desert you will find that God is simultaneously present and absent, proximate and remote, visible and invisible, manifest and hidden. God can receive you with great tenderness and then abandon you on the cross of loneliness. God consoles you and torments you at the same time. God heals you only to wound you again. God may speak to you today and ignore you tomorrow.

–– Alessandro Pronzato [ii]

 

Although “Lent” comes from a word for springtime, the season of fresh and abundant growth, its dominant metaphor is the desert, with its connotations of aridity and spareness. The spiritual journey back to the garden must go by way of the desert. Distractions, distortions and comfortable illusions must be stripped away to make room for a grace beyond our own cramped imaginings. As W. Paul Jones puts it, the desert is “a game of take-away.”

As every saint will tell you, the spiritual life is not always satisfaction. Sometimes it is deprivation, a “negative grace” that draws us (or forces us) out of our settled and static states into the disorienting vastness of divine imagination. No longer sheltered by the old complacencies, we experience a lack, an absence, a desolation, which nothing familiar can fill or assuage. In retrospect, we understand this as a necessary passage into a reality richer and deeper than our old “self,” but whenever we are in the midst of the Cloud of Unknowing or lost in the Land of Unlikeness, we are subject to the anguish of abandonment. My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?

George Herbert, whose feast day (February 27) follows Ash Wednesday this year, was a seventeenth-century poet-priest who wrote elegant and moving verse about the motions of the soul and the life of faith. Although honest about his own shortcomings and inner struggles, he was consistently conversant with the God of grace, and his poems were usually grounded in a sense of reliable­­––if sometimes challenging––reciprocity with his Maker and Redeemer.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart as joys in love. (“The Call”)

But even “the holy Mr. Herbert,” as his parishioners called him, spent time in the desert of divine absence and spiritual desolation.  “Denial” is one of his unhappiest poems, lamenting a God who is not only hidden, but unresponsive, seemingly deaf to Herbert’s prayers: “O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue / To cry to thee, / And then not hear it crying!”

The brokenness of the meter matches the poet’s broken heart. As Herbert biographer John Drury notes, “iambs (short-longs) jostle discordantly with trochees (long-shorts). The lines of each verse are, apart from the two minimally two-feet lines, unequal in length (four, two, five, three, two feet). There is near-chaos.” [iii]

In all but the last stanza, the concluding line is dispiriting: “disorder. . . alarms . . . no hearing . . . no hearing . . . discontented.” And each stanza’s ending fails to rhyme with any other line, intensifying the sense of disconnection and alienation from a larger whole. Only the poem’s final line is granted the mending grace of rhyme.

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse:
My breast was full of fears
And disorder:

My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
Of alarms.

As good go anywhere, they say,
As to benumb
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come,
But no hearing.

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untun’d, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipped blossom, hung
Discontented.

O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.

“But no hearing,” occurring twice at the poem’s center, poses deep crisis for a person of prayer. Yet faith teaches us to bear divine silence patiently. Silence does not always mean absence or indifference. It can, sometimes, be a profounder form of speech. But the fifth stanza adds the image of being unseen to the one of being unheard: “my soul lay out of sight, / Untun’d, unstrung.”

Herbert loved music. It is said that when he was near death, he suddenly rose from his bed and called for one of his instruments, so that he might play and sing for his God. According to Izaak Walton’s account, as he tuned the instrument he prayed, “My God, my God! My music shall find thee. And ev’ry string shall have his attribute to sing.”

So Herbert’s image of the soul as an instrument untuned and forgotten, like the abandoned harps hung on willow trees by the rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137:2), conveys a sense of utter forlornness. “What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see / Thy full-ey’d love!” wrote Herbert in “The Glance.” Such a gaze shall “look us out of pain.” But in “Denial,” God’s “sweet and gracious eye” no longer rests upon him. It no longer sees him at all, as if he doesn’t exist.

Or so it seems to the disconsolate soul. And yet Herbert continues to speak as if God is still there, as if his prayer might still be heard. “O cheer and tune my heartless breast,” he cries, using his favorite musical image for the restoration of the soul’s lost consonance, when “thy favors . . . and my mind may chime” (like bells in harmony) and so “mend my [broken] rhyme.”

That final word puts an end to the discordant lack of rhymed endings in the previous stanzas. Just as the poem’s broken meter signifies the disorder in Herbert’s soul, so this restoration of missing rhyme anticipates the grace of a mended life. Furthermore, the double meaning of the last word (“rhyme” was sometimes spelled “rime,” which also means frost) suggests an additional connotation of renewal:  the heart’s long winter will soon be mended by the coming of spring.

 

 

 

[i] W. Paul Jones, A Season in the Desert: Making Time Holy (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2000), 96.

[ii] Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand (1982, p. 45), cited in John Moses, The Desert: An Anthology for Lent (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 1997), 31.

[iii] John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 331.

Ash Wednesday Isn’t for Heroes

Giovanni Bellini, Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels (1460)

Yesterday’s come-from-behind Olympic victory by Shaun White in the snowboarding halfpipe was both thrilling drama and breathtaking athleticism. Following a failure to medal in the last Olympics and a serious injury in competition just four months ago, his triumph fit the classic pattern of the hero’s journey: an arduous path “through many dangers, toils and snares” until the prize is won. But the hero’s journey, however inspiring, is not our Lenten theme. We walk a different way, practicing self-compassion in the dust and ashes of our own defeats.

Every Ash Wednesday, my favorite Winter Olympics story comes to mind. Readers may recall it from a 2016 post, but I offer it again here, prefaced by Mary Oliver’s Lenten antiphon:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.[i]

In the 1988 Winter Olympics, American speed skater Dan Jansen, the best in the world, was the consensus pick to win the 500 and 1000 meter events. On the morning of the 500 final, he learned his sister had just died from leukemia. His focus clearly elsewhere, he fell on the first turn of his race and never finished. He would also fall and fail in the 1000 meters. At the 1992 Olympics, he again failed to win the medals expected of him. The 1994 Olympics offered him one last chance, and he came to the line of the 500 meter race as the clear favorite, the only skater ever to break 36 seconds, which he had done four times. But after one slight slip on the ice, he finished out of the medals yet again.

Ash Wednesday came just after that race, and during the liturgy I reflected on Jansen’s story in my homily. Although Jansen would finally win a gold medal a few days later (in the one race where he was an underdog), it was his “failures” that resonated with people. After the liturgy, a therapist in the congregation told me that many of her clients that week had talked with her about Jansen’s story, and how much it moved them. If the world’s greatest skater could fall, then maybe it was all right for them to fall as well. You don’t have to be a hero, only your own flawed and unfinished self, letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

In his youth, the poet David Whyte was hiking in the Himalayas when he came to a deep chasm. The only way across was a rickety old rope bridge with many missing slats. Although he was a confident, experienced mountaineer, he suddenly froze at the prospect of traversing the abyss on so treacherous a path. He sat down on the ground and stared at the bridge for hours, unable to proceed. “There are times when the hero has to sit down,” he said later. “At some bridges in life the part of you that always gets it done has to sit down.” Then an old Tibetan woman came along, gathering yak dung for fuel. She walked with a limp. “Namaste,” she said with a smile. Then she turned and limped across the bridge. Immediately, without thinking, he rose up and followed. Sometimes, he realized, it is “the old interior angel,” the unheroic, limping, unequipped part of ourselves, that gets us to the other side.[ii]

Remember that you are dust, and no hero. Whether your Lent will be a time of giving up, going deep, or reaching out, may it always be done with a generous measure of self-compassion.

 

 

[i] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” in Devotions (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 347.

[ii] Remembered from a David Whyte talk in the 1990s.