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:
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
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.