After Prayer: Lent with George Herbert. Day 1

Today is George Herbert’s day, and, in addition to the weekly posts linked to my Lent book The Word in the Wilderness, I thought that I would also offer a series of posts comprising a Lenten journey through all the images in Herbert’s poem Prayer, drawing on the sonnets I wrote in response to each image in my new book After Prayer. Each post will give you the text of the poem, a recording of me reading it, and a little commentary or reflection on the image and the sonnet I wrote in response to it.

To set the context here are the words of Herbert’s poem, the map for our lenten pilgrimage:


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.

I learnt many things by writing in response to this poem, but perhaps the most telling was the discovery that Prayer is not a random compendium, but rather a soul-story, a spiritual journey. Usually the images flash by us so fast in such dazzling array that we have scarcely time to consider their order, their narrative arc. But by slowing the poem down and reflecting on each image both in itself and in its place in the sequence I found myself taken on a journey from the feasting and fecundity of the opening image of the Church’s Banquet, through mystery and variety and then, with the Christian plummet,down into unsounded depths and uncharted waters, into the painful battle fields and the wounded places of engine against the almightie, sinners tower, Christ-side-piercing spear, and then eventually up again through a kind of chastened recovery, a training of the ear to hear new music, a kind of tune,until one glimpsed the bird of paradise and caught the scent of the land of spices, until one was brought at least to the brink of something understood. The journey, I soon realised, was not just Herbert’s but had, necessarily, to be mine as well. And I found that, paradoxically, by following Herbert’s trajectory so closely I was also enabled to recognise and tell something of my own story too.

And here, to start us off on George Herbert’s day in the church calendar, is my response to the first image in Prayer: The Church’s Banquet

As with all these poems you can hear me read it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title



The Church’s Banquet

Not some strict modicum, exact allowance,

Precise prescription, rigid regimen,

But beauty and gratuitous abundance,

Capacious grace, beyond comparison.

Not something hasty, always snatched alone;

Junkets of junk food, fuelling our dis-ease,

Not little snacklets eaten on the run,

But peace and plenty, taken at our ease.

Not to be worked for, not another task,

But love that’s lavished on us, full and free,

Course after course of hospitality,

And rich wine flowing from an unstopped flask.

He paid the price before we reached the inn,

And all He asks of us is to begin.


Filed under imagination, Poems

14 responses to “After Prayer: Lent with George Herbert. Day 1

  1. bgulland72

    I love the sense of plenitude & rest. I can’t help but connect its message with a short video from Glen Scrivener I watched yesterday, very different poetic style but parallel message…

  2. Karen Foster

    Thank you Malcolm.

  3. Lovely response to Herbert’s poem. I found your paragraph on the journey the images take us through really helpful. He is an under-rated writer!

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  5. David C Brown

    I love the gratuitous abundance we gain from Him!
    Can I put a link to my response to the “church banquet” here?

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  10. June De Wit

    This is precious and beautiful. Peace and plenty. Fully and freely, yes. Lavished love.

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