George Herbert and the Heart’s Altar – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

Lenten Commemoration – George Herbert (1593-1633)

Matthew 5:1-10

Our God and King, you called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In the calendar of the church, we commemorate today a 17th-century Church of England country parson named George Herbert. Down through the centuries, he is most remembered for his arresting, revealing, passionate poetry, which was published posthumously.  There was a secret to George Herbert’s greatness, but not the obvious.

He was born into an artistic and wealthy family, and was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he excelled in languages and music.  He was a stunningly-gifted orator, so gifted as to attract the attention of King James I and, later, King Charles.  He would go on to serve as a member of Parliament, but with a recurring sense that he was to be a priest.  Which happened.  In 1630, in his late thirties, George Herbert relinquished his rather grand preferment to be ordained as a priest.  He would spend the rest of his life – three years only – as rector of the little parish of Fugglestone St. Peter, near Salisbury, about 75 miles southwest of London.  He was revered by his parishioners for his humility, kindness, and tender care; for his faithfully bringing the sacraments to those who were ill; and for his generously providing food and clothing for those in need.  Henry Vaughan, the Welsh poet and contemporary, called George Herbert “a most glorious saint and seer.”[i]  As a priest, Herbert’s skills in public rhetoric were being used in his preaching, which was grounded in the simple elements of everyday rural life.  He preached like Jesus taught.  And Herbert wrote both prose and poetry.

His prose piece most remembered is a work of encouragement to priests, The Country Parson, offering practical advice to fellow pastors. He writes that “things of ordinary use” such as ploughs, and leaven, and even country dancing could be made to “serve for lights of Heavenly Truths.”  He also showed both his wisdom and his rather mischievous sense of humor in the extensive compilation of his own “Outlandish Proverbs,” some of which we still use today:

“His bark is worse than his bite.”

“Love your neighbor, yet pull not down your hedge.”

“Many kiss the hand they wish cut off.”

“In the world, who knows not to swim goes to the bottom.”

“There would be no great ones, if there were no little ones.”

… and many, many more proverbs.

And then there was George Herbert’s profound poetry.  A contemporary and fellow poet spoke of George Herbert as “a soul composed of harmonies.”[ii]  Some of these harmonies we still sing in familiar hymns.[iii]  And yet his soul was also fraught with disharmony and anguish, all of which surfaces in his poetry.  Shortly before his death, George Herbert wrote to his friend, Nicholas Ferrar, telling him to publish Herbert’s works of poetry if he thought they might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” or otherwise, to burn them.[iv]  George Herbert died at age 40, none of his poetry having been published in his own lifetime.  His poignant, passionate poetry was autobiographical.

George Herbert described his writings as “a picture of spiritual conflicts between God and my soul before I could subject my will to Jesus, my Master; in whose service I have found perfect freedom.”  And therein lies the secret.  Why had George Herbert been so conflicted?  We don’t know for sure, but we can surmise. The combination of his family’s tremendous wealth and privilege, his keen mind, his excellent education, his charismatic oratorical skills, his internal drive to be fabulous, and who knows what else, had brought him to the top of the heap.  While still in his twenties he had gained the whole but never found his soul.[v]  Two things happened, two breakdowns.

First, his heart broke down, and that had to do with the meaninglessness of his life.  His unbridled, Zeus-like power left him abjectly empty.  Since his childhood, he had had a sense he was to be a priest.  Now in his late-30s, he realized why this was true: for the salvation of his own soul.  He needed to consecrate his life and canalize his personal gifts. To consecrate is to make an offering and, in this case, to offer his heart to God to sanctify, bless, make holy.  He had to stop being his own god, but rather co-operate and co-laborate with the God of his creation. He knew it.  He was desperately after a new heart.[vi]  And secondly, to make a canal of his life’s gifts and abilities – to canalize rather than hoard and strut his personal gifts, which were rotting from the inside out.  His poem, “The Altar,” speaks to this:

“A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart and cemented with tears…”[vii]

He got it. For the first time he understood what Jesus was talking about, the Gospel passage appointed for this evening, the Beatitudes.  From the inside out, he found himself a poor and pathetic man, truth be told, and he heard Jesus’ words as never before:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God…”[viii]

George Herbert desperately longed for this blessing.

His second breakdown was with his lungs. He had tuberculosis, which had no known cure.  He knew his days were numbered, and that had a kind of rarifying effect on how he lived and what he offered of himself, while God gave him breath.

We here probably have very little in common with the pedigree and privilege of George Herbert.  Where we may identify is with his sense of poverty, which is so paradoxical.  This is our own experience of poverty when attempting to make meaning of life if left alone.  There’s such enormous freedom and such converted power in acknowledging all that we are and all that we have is God’s gift.  Gifts, by their nature, must be given up.  That’s the nature of gifts.  Gifts must be given away or they cease to be gifts.  This to live our lives as gift, wakening to the dawn of a new day, placing our life on the altar, just like with the bread and wine.  It’s a prayer that all we are and all that we have be consecrated, be transformed, and then used as a conduit of Jesus’ light, and life, and love.  That kind of life-offering proved to be George Herbert’s making, or, rather, his re-making.  It worked for him, while he was yet strong; it worked for him while he diminished.  In the end, it was George Herbert’s sense of poverty, not his grandiosity, that proved to be the secret of his blessing and his lasting legacy.  It’s what Saint Paul called “strength being made perfect in weakness.”[ix] George Herbert, who had had nothing in common with anyone, now had all things in common with everyone.

This is such a powerful witness, such an encouragement to us today as we make meaning of life in a mean time. Live your life as an offering to God – where you are strong and where you are weak – and then, collaborating with God to be a generous channel of God’s presence and God’s provision.  Blessed George Herbert, whom we remember today with thanksgiving.

[i] Henry Vaughan (1621-1695) was a Welsh metaphysical poet, author, and physician.

[ii] This is the description of Charles Cotton (1630-1687), an English poet.

[iii] Familiar Herbert poems include the hymns “King of Glory, King of Peace” (Praise), “Let All the World in Every Corner Sing” (Antiphon), and “Teach me, my God and King” (The Elixir). His biographer, Izaak Walton, described Herbert on his death-bed as “composing such hymns and anthems as he and the angels now sing in heaven.”

[iv] On his deathbed, Herbert reportedly gave the manuscript of The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar, the founder of the Anglican religious community at Little Gidding, a name remembered in the poem “Little Gidding” by T. S. Eliot.

[v] This is a riff on Jesus’ words: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:26).

[vi] The Psalmist prays, “Create in me a new heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

[vii] “The Altar,” by George Herbert

A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart and cemented with tears;
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same.
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame
To praise thy name.
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
Oh, let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

[viii] Matthew 5:1-10.

[ix] II Corinthians 12:8-10.

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  1. Mary Russell on March 4, 2018 at 19:18

    Insightful, generous and relevant comments on the life of an extraordinary man and priest about whom I have always been curious. Thank you, Brother Curtis for the gift of this podcast.

  2. Ruth West on March 1, 2018 at 23:54

    Br. Curtis, thank you for this very informative piece.
    I love George Herbert’s poetry, and especially “The Altar.” Such spiritual insight he had! I like his reference to praise and using the words of Jesus re: the stones. If only I can remember this! Jesus is worthy to be praised, and forbid that I should refuse or fail to the point that the stones would need to cry out in my stead. May Blessed George Herbert rest in peace. Amen.

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