I was introduced to George Herbert, 16th- century Anglican priest and poet, in the fall of my junior year of college.
It was in Metaphysical Poets, which I was taking purely because I had been enthralled by John Donne’s Holy Sonnets in high school AP Lit.
But whereas Donne sometimes left me feeling let down – the genius and zeal of his poetry, both the holy and profane, still leading to a defection from his first confession of faith – I started realizing that Herbert always caught himself, and me as his reader, just before taking the plunge into full-blown despair.
I love the image of a frustrated priest, slamming his fist onto the high altar and demanding an answer, a reason, to his unnoticed and sacrificial life.
“Shall I ever sigh a pine?/My lines and life are free; free as the road,/Loose as the wind, as large as store,” Herbert’s speaker raves. “Shall I still be in suit?”
And yet, at the very end, there is the turn, so classic to Herbert – he is quite ready to pack up and go abroad, but suddenly, “as I raved and grew more fierce and wild/At every word,/Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child:/And I replied, My Lord.”
“The Collar” ends there, four short lines concluding a slew of others ranting against a seemingly unfair master and no sentimental explanation of what caused such a turn, or how the speaker will now “deal with it.” It just happens.
The father speaks. Love enters in. And the child, the pursued, cannot help but be transfixed by His call.
I loved this. And by the time I finished The Temple, Herbert’s collection of posthumously-published poems, I wanted to plaster the concluding poem, “Love III” across my journal, on the underside of my roommate’s top bunk, my closet door, anywhere I could glance and be reminded of Love’s determined invitation to His banquet table.
How often I draw back and make excuses of my unworthiness. I think there’s a balance in “Love III” between an awareness of shame and the pride of knowing that it’s there – between “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you” and the false humility of the Pharisee outside the temple. Love steps in and captures the protesting guest right in the middle of that dichotomy. What is more, he is quick to anticipate his guest’s excuses and has a better answer to each one.
Love beats the sinner to the root of his shame, meeting him there with an open hand leading to the feast.
Two years and one 30-page thesis on Rev. Herbert later – engaged to the young man I began dating the semester I first discovered good old George in Metaphysical Poets – I find myself coming back to Love’s simple, gracious and determined invitation to partake in heaven’s feast, His constant pursuit of a timid, unworthy, prideful and unwanting guest like me.
Quick-eyed Love continues to capture my heart, despite how many times I not only stumble, but seem to shoot myself in the foot in terms of any attempts, or lack thereof, at progression in the spiritual life and, really, life in general.
And as I step out of college and into adulthood, I can’t think of a better, more accurate theme to the everyday episodes that meet me along the way.
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked anything.
A guest, I answered, 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 marred 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.