Arthur Middleton on the desire for God
Starting with the familiar in George Herbert reminds one that Anglicanism has always had priests who were poets and poets who were priests, but in Herbert these become two sides of a single vocation. In each stage of his short life (he was 40 when he died), he engaged with it through the medium of poetry. Not only in poetry but also in his prose, such as The Country Parson, he speaks of his convictions about priesthood which is a considered statement about what he should be aiming at as a priest. His poetry is more spontaneous and immediate as part of an ongoing conversation with God. His thoughts about priesthood are scattered through his verse but in two particular poems, The Priesthood and Aaron, we find a more concentrated treatment. In the former he wrestles with the only reason for not being a priest, that he is not worthy of so holy a task. Since worthiness is not to be acquired but can only be received by submission to the love that bestows worthiness, it becomes not a matter of what to do but when. So from the human side it is impossible, but from God’s side it is possible, and the opposite is true: what is possible for God is still impossible for man. The seeds of what can be described as mystical experience are rooted in what St Paul describes as the groaning and travailing in the sufferings of this present time, that are as nothing that can be compared with the glory that will be revealed. Herbert thought that he had made the ultimate sacrifice, counted the true cost, by being ordained and shutting the door to worldly preferment.
But he had not counted it all. God demanded more of saints of Herbert’s calibre. God needed to effect an interior transformation of spirit that would change the heart and mind and renew Herbert’s whole mental and emotional attitude through his self-renunciation. This would be accomplished and sealed by God’s Spirit so that Herbert’s life would be conformed to the doctrine.
For two years this Herbert the deacon was in spiritual crisis due to ill health and in consequence a loss of confidence in his ability to fulfil his vocation to be a priest. It was a feeling of complete ineffectiveness and of conflict between his soul and God, of anxiety that his sacrifice would bear no fruit. His poem The Collar in its boldness and directness reflects something of his anxiety of spirit.
‘I struck the board, and cry’d, No more.
I will abroad.
What? Shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the rode,
Loose as the winde, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me bloud, and not restore What I have lost with cordiall fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it: there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the yeare onely lost to me?
Have I no bayes to crown it?
No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted?
Not so, my heart: but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh blown age
On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit, and not. Forsake thy cage,
Thy rope of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
Away; take heed:
I will abroad.
Call in thy death’s head there: tie up thy fears.
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need,
Deserves his load.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde
At every word
Methought I heard one calling, “Child,”
And I replied, “My Lord.”
Methought I heard one calling “Child.” There is no more to say.
Wherefore I dare not, I, put forth my hand
To hold the Ark, although it seem to shake
Through th’ old sinnes and new doctrines of our land.
Onely, since God doth often vessels make
Of lowly matter for high uses meet,
I throw me at his feet.
There will I lie, untill my Maker seek
For some mean stuffe whereon to show his skill:
Then is my time.’
Even when ordained he complains that in spite of all he is no priest because of—
‘Profanenesse in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest:
Poore priest thus am I drest.
Onely another head I have, another heart and breast,
Another musick, making live not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest: In him I am well drest.’
To know the things of God requires a personal acquaintance that can only come through a deep interior life of prayer, that weds doctrine and life in one, and only when such a marriage has taken place in the priest will his preaching be effective. In his poem The Windows, he echoes this insight where he speaks :
‘Lord, how can man preach thy eternall
To be a window, through thy grace,
Making thy life to shine within
Thy holy preachers…
Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe: but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the eare, not conscience ring.’
To come to a poem more familiar to you, Teach Me, My God and King, Herbert sees avarice succinctly expressing the paradox of money. Money becomes the drudge which we elevate it to sovereignty, stamp our image on it and worship it. The result is inevitable: such people fall into the ditch. This falling into the ditch is the folly of the blind people who will not look upon the real world of God, but persist in following their own corruptible sin. But there is a remedy. This poem is called The Elixir. For that is what the word ‘elixir’ means, a remedy—a word used in the ancient science of alchemy (that preceded chemistry). It is a kind of preparation that can change metals into gold. Or it is a preparation that is able to prolong life indefinitely, a supposed remedy for all ills. So it is the panacea, the cure-all, heal-all wonder drug. In alchemy, it is the substance thought to be capable of changing base metals into gold. The same term, more fully ‘elixir vitae,’ ‘elixir of life,’ was given to the substance that would indefinitely prolong life—a liquid that was believed to be allied with the Philosopher’s Stone.
And what is this elixir, that sovereign remedy that will make all the difference to the life of the Christian? It is being able to recognize that all things in the daily routine of life may indeed turn to gold and change their meaning if they are directed to God in willed intention. The whole of life can be lifted out of the psychological into the spiritual sphere. Keep looking in this direction and all will be turned to gold. So our prayer is:
‘Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in any thing,
To do it as for thee…’