Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
If man were allowed one audience with God in his lifetime, extensive preparations would be made. Think of it. A personal audience with the God of the universe. It is impossible to measure the impact such a privilege would have on one’s life. This would be the moment to which all things pointed, both in anticipation and retrospect.
More incomprehensible is the reality that through Jesus Christ, our access to God is unfettered. Rather than existing in a spiritual culture of poverty, Christians enjoy what George Herbert called “the church’s banquet” of prayer. Why then would we not bring everything to the feet of He to whom all things bow?
Step forward to the throne of grace.
Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Art: Old Man in Prayer by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606–1669), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Liturgy and Literature: George Herbert (1593–1633)
Nestled somewhere within the Age of Shakespeare and the Age of Milton is George Herbert. There is no Age of Herbert: he did not consciously fashion an expansive literary career for himself, and his characteristic gestures, insofar as these can be gleaned from his poems and other writings, tend to be careful self-scrutiny rather than rhetorical pronouncement; local involvement rather than broad social engagement; and complex, ever-qualified lyric contemplation rather than epic or dramatic myth-making. This is the stuff of humility and integrity, not celebrity. But even if Herbert does not appear to be one of the larger-than-life cultural monuments of seventeenth-century England—a position that virtually requires the qualities of irrepressible ambition and boldness, if not self-regarding arrogance, that he attempted to flee—he is in some ways a pivotal figure: enormously popular, deeply and broadly influential, and arguably the most skillful and important British devotional lyricist of this or any other time.
Prayers in the lyric poetry of the period also combine biblical materials with other influences, most notably the techniques of meditation developed by Catholic writers of the Counter-Reformation (see L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation ). For instance, the verse prayers of John Donne, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan often take the form of a Catholic meditation, but they are typically Protestant in theology (Donne’s “La Corona” may be an exception) and frequently biblical in inspiration. Donne’s Holy Sonnets (1633) and prose Devotions (1624) deal with inner struggles against doubt and adversity reminiscent of many of the Psalms. Theologically, they explore Pauline doctrines central to Protestant piety: sin, the cross, election, faith, and the steps of salvation, though like his sermons they draw on commentary and exegesis as (apparently) diverse as that of the Jesuit Cornelius à Lapide and the Calvinist Theodore Beza.
George Herbert’s The Temple (1633) and Henry Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans (1650) frequently deal with these central doctrines, but they depend upon other biblical material as well. Herbert’s central concern is with the Church as the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, his verse prayers contain a good deal of biblical typology; i.e., they treat the life of the poet as a type of the life of Christ, and they present passages in the OT as foreshadowings of the NT revelations about Christ and the Church. A similar use of typology appears in Henry Vaughan’s writing (e.g., “Ascension Day”), but there the emphasis is on the solitary relationship between the believer and God, not on the communion of believers in the Church.
Elizabeth Clarke, Theory and Theology in George Herbert’s Poetry: ‘Divinitie, and Poesie, Met’, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
Arthur L. Clements, Poetry of Contemplation: John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and the Modern Period, New York: State University of New York Press, 1990.
R. W. Cooley, Full of All Knowledge: George Herbert’s Country Parson and Early Modern Social Discourse, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.
C. Hodgkin, Authority, Church and Society in George Herbert, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.
B. Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study of English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954.
Richard Strier, Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert’s Poetry, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
J. H. Summers, George Herbert: His Religion and Art, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies: Binghamton, New York: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1981.
S. Sykes, Unashamed Anglicanism, London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1999, Chapter 3.
Rosamund Tuve, A Reading of George Herbert, Chicago: University of Chicago Press , reprint 1982.
Gene E. Veith, Reformation Spirituality: The Religion of George Herbert, London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1985.
George Herbert, Heaven in Ordinary: George Herbert and His Writings, ed. Philip Sheldrake, Canterbury Studies in Spiritual Theology (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2009), 173.
David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992).
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