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I have always loved the poetry of George Herbert. When I was eighteen I was given a copy of The Metaphysical Poets, a Penguin paperback, with its fine introduction by the eminent scholar Dame Helen Gardner. I still have the book, well thumbed and rather worse for wear, but a testimony to those faithful companions, Herbert, Donne, Marvell, and Vaughan, who have traveled with me over the years.
But it is to my fellow Welshman, George Herbert, that I return again and again. I well remember turning the pages of that book and there, on page 121, I saw “Easter Wings.” You can’t miss it because of its shape. It actually looks like what the poet is trying to describe. In the early editions, the lines were printed vertically, to represent the shape of wings on the page. To get this effect, try turning this page ninety degrees, half close your eyes, and there are two birds flying upward with outstretched wings!
poem, adopted from the ancient Greeks, in which the shape mirrors the theme: and what more glorious theme than Easter! Each of the two stanzas represents first a dying or a falling, and then a rising pattern, which is the theme of the Easter story. The top half of each stanza focuses on the problem caused by human sin, and the bottom half reflects the hope made possible by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
With Thee O let me rise,
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day Thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne;
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel this day Thy victorie;
For, if I imp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
Helen Gardner wrote that “the quintessence or soul of a metaphysical poem is the vivid imagining of a moment of experience.” I wonder what “moment of experience” caused Herbert to write this personal and moving prayer to God. Herbert lived for three years as rector of the tiny village of Bemerton, just across the water meadows from Salisbury cathedral, the cathedral where I was ordained. I like to imagine him walking out one crisp Easter morning, summoned by the bells of the cathedral, raising his eyes to that great spire reaching into the heavens, and seeing countless birds swooping and gliding and soaring in delight. With his heart filled with joy, it seems that in this poem he too longs to rise up like those birds, and take flight with the risen Christ.
The first stanza speaks of how we were created by God and given every good thing: “Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store.” But through the fall of man all these good things were lost and decayed, “‘Till he became Most poore.” The lines of the stanza mirror this loss by “decaying” in length.
But there is hope, and in the rising part of the stanza, Herbert writes lyrically of his desire to rise with Christ: “With Thee O let me rise, As larks, harmoniously, and sing this day Thy victories.” In the last line, the alliteration of “Then shall the fall further the flight in me” expresses the paradox that if humankind had not fallen, then we would never have had the wonderful gift of the coming of Christ to redeem us. This paradox is often called the felix culpa or the “happy fault,” words which are traditionally sung at the Exsultet on Easter morning, printed on page 13 of this Cowley.
The second stanza is even more personal and autobiographical. He remembers with sorrow and shame some of his earlier life, perhaps something of what he describes so painfully in his poem “Affliction.” It was an experience which meant, “That I became Most thinne.”
But all is redeemed in the glorious rising part of this second stanza. He prays that his earlier suffering may help him fly even higher, because of the “victorie” of Christ over sin and death at Easter. “For if I imp my wing on Thine, Affliction shall advance the flight in me.” To “imp” is a technical term taken from falconry, meaning to graft feathers onto a damaged wing to restore a bird’s power of flight. Herbert is asking that his damaged wing be repaired by grafting it onto Christ’s, and that together they may rise and soar up to eternal life. There is such a sense of soaring joy here, and perhaps Herbert had in mind the passage from Isaiah 40: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
This is a poem which has delighted me for many years, with its joyful and exuberant celebration of Easter, and I shall always be grateful for the companionship of George Herbert, parish priest, poet, and in the words of his fellow writer Henry Vaughan, “a most glorious saint and seer.
The towering pillar of wax is incised with the sign of the cross “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end…” and marked with symbols of God’s eternal now “…the Alpha, and the Omega. All time belongs to him, and all the ages. To him be glory and power, through every age for ever.” Grains of incense in red waxen nails, signs of God’s sacrifice, are inserted at the cross’ five points. “By his holy and glorious wounds may Christ the Lord guard us and keep us.”
Lighting the great candle from the newly kindled fire, the Presider prays, “May the light of Christ rising in glory dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.” The Deacon takes up the Paschal Candle and carrying it before the assembly, leads them from the garden into the still-darkened church. Stopping at three points and lifting high the great light, the Deacon intones, each time at a higher pitch: “The light of Christ.” At each station, the people respond, “Thanks be to God” and, as they enter the narthex, light their handheld candles. The waxen pillar of fire, placed in its stand at the center of the choir and censed with sweet-smelling smoke by the Deacon, becomes a glowing pillar of cloud as well.
And now the Deacon sings the Exsultet, the Easter proclamation of good news. Bathed in the light of Christ’s resurrection, those gathered in the candles’ radiance are invited to “Rejoice now” with the whole company of heaven, every creature on earth, and Mother Church in all places and times – at the victory over the powers of darkness won through the King who humbled himself unto death.
All are then bidden, “Lift up your hearts.” Christ is praised as the Paschal Lamb who by his blood delivers people, as the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt. The Paschal feast and sacrifice are likened to the Exodus: As the children of Israel were brought out of bondage through the Red Sea, so all who believe in Christ are delivered from sin and death and given new life through the waters of baptism. The poetic paradox that the “happy fault” of our first parents’ disobedience should bring to us “so great a Redeemer” recalls the words of Paul: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33). And so the lighted candle, “the work of the bees your creatures,” is offered, set apart, and blessed as a sacramental sign for us of Christ the Morning-Star and Sun of Righteousness which never sets.
The Exsultet, our Easter hymn of ecstatic gratitude, like the Great Thanksgiving of the Eucharist, proclaims at once what God has done for and is doing in us. By our Paschal celebration, God’s wondrous creation of the universe, the mysteries of Christ’s incarnation, baptism, and preaching of the kingdom, his passion and death, resurrection and ascension, and the abiding gift of the Spirit’s power are all made sacramentally and really present as kairos, the eternal now, breaks into chronos, this old world’s passing away.
So we make anamnesis, remembrance, renewing the promises and vows of Holy Baptism and feeding anew on the Body and Blood of the Risen One. The Exsultet becomes the joyful angel calling us from the tomb, proclaiming our share in Christ’s glorious resurrection, and singing of the light kindled in us, which shall never be extinguished.
My earliest memories are of the church. When I was about eight, I said to my parents that I wanted to be a priest. I was something of the odd one out in my family, and the church was the one place where I felt really appreciated. My father was very influential with me. Of course, football was also important to him, but I wasn’t interested in football; and business was important to him, but I wasn’t interested in that. So, the church felt like the one place that was right for me where I could connect with my father – and that proved to be true. As I was growing up, monks and nuns were never foreign to me. We lived about thirty miles from an Episcopal Benedictine community. My father, who worked in shoe manufacturing, used to give them all their shoes. They were guests in our house a lot, and we would go over to the Abbey. When I was ateenager, I started to go there periodi-cally on retreat. My mother and all my aunts on both sides of the family were educated by Episcopal nuns. So the whole language of monasticism was there throughout my childhood. It was in my DNA.
Q: When did this familiarity develop into a personal feeling of call?
When I was in seminary I began to feel attracted to the religious life. I had a professor who really encouraged me to pray and, with that, I started to become intrigued. Before then, I had basi¬cally thought that monks were losersprobably because they make this very counter-cultural decision to reject what we are always taught to value: They don’t get married, they don’t care about making money or climbing the ladder to success. When I was a child that differ¬ence seemed off-putting, but over time it became intriguing to me. In seminary there were several of us who became intrigued about living a common life, a simple life – not forever, but for a while. I suppose, in some ways, we also wanted to prolong seminary. So we talked a bishop into letting us share a house and salaries, and to be respon¬sible for five churches. By the end of the final year in seminary, I was basically the only one left: Somebody had gotten a good fellowship; somebody had gotten married; and, actually, somebody had decided to become a monk. I didn’t want to do this alone, so I went off to England, where I’d heard there was a house like the one we’d intended to start. In England, I lived for two years in a clergy house, where four of us shared one and a half salaries. We were parish priests who prayed together four times a day and shared meals. We took yearly promises to live a simple life. It was re¬ally wonderful training. Finally, I decided that it was time to come home. During the next two years, as assistant rector of a parish in the inner city in Milwaukee, I started to under¬standunder¬stand that I probably had a vocation to a more traditional kind of religious life. I started looking around. I knew all the religious communities in the United States except the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, which I knew of only from England, but I wasn’t ready to make a commitment to any of those communi¬ties. My spiritual director said to me, “You should do what people always do when they can’t decide what to do with the rest of their lives – apply to graduate school.” So I did. I went off to Catholic University that fall to do a Masters in Liturgical Theology. While I was there, I came up to Cambridge to visit the Monastery because SSJE was the one religious order that I hadn’t visited.
Q: How was that first visit to SSJE?
I walked in the door and, before I’d even talked to anybody, I said to myself – “This is it.” Later on, I had a conversation with Paul Wessinger, who was the Superior at the time. I told him, “I’m coming in the fall.” I think he was a little surprised at how forthright I was. He said, “Well we should probably get some references for you.” So I gave him some references. And then he said, “It would probably be a good idea if you came back again for another visit.” So I came back for a week to visit. Then I came back the following fall as a novice. I’ve been here ever since. As I look back on it now, I think I came here because I was looking for two things that were quite positive: I wanted to be able to pray more, to really learn how to pray. That desire was quite genu¬ine, I think, and of God. And secondly, while I liked parish life well enough, I wanted a much more intense experience of community. If those desires were positive and of God, I think there were also some that pushed me here that weren’t so great. Even as a little boy, when my grandfa¬ther, uncle, and father – who were all in business together – would sit together on Sunday afternoons before the family meal, having a drink and talking about business and making money, I knew that that was not a world I wanted to enter. Certain issues around money and relationships certainly influenced my curiosity about the religious life. I don’t think those issues are entirely gone, but I think they’re in the process of going on their way. And they helped to bring me here.
Q: How would you describe what happened in that moment when you walked through the door for the first time?
Grace. I’ve had a few other instances like that in my life, where it’s been clear to me – to my core – that I am supposed to do this thing. It’s grace. That’s the only way I can describe it. My experi¬ence wasn’t mediated by anything or anyone; it was just the experience of standing for the first time in that front hall and suddenly saying to myself, “Well, this is it.” I think that when you’re in the place you’re called to be, you know. Something in you just clicks. It clicks and makes sense. Standing there in the front hall, this made sense to me. It’s funny, because, once I got here, I didn’t really have the luxury of discern¬ing a vocation the way some people do, because I was given so much responsi¬bility almost from the very beginning. I was the Novice Guardian almost immediately after I made my first vows. And I was elected Superior the year after I made my life profession. So I didn’t have a lot of time to think about wheth¬er or not this was my vocation until after I finished being Superior. With all that was happening, I just didn’t question my vocation very much. There were certainly times when I was unhappy, times when I wanted to leave. There may even have been times when I threatened to leave. But I don’t think I ever questioned that this is what God wants me to do, that I am where God wants me to be.
Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about accepting that call?
Self-awareness. The self-awareness that comes from a life of prayer and from liv¬ing in community. It’s not about being a bishop; it’s not about being a priest; it’s not, ultimately, even about being a monk. It’s about the gift of self-aware¬ness. I never thought my life would be this wonderful