We continue our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer. If you want a feel for the book itself and for what moved me to write it there is a full interview Here, conducted by Lancia Smith for her excellent ‘Cultivating’ website.
In our last post on Gladness of the Best, we saw how, having been lifted up by Christ, Herbert has a chance to look around and be glad, to delight again in the goodness of God’s creation as well as the wonder of his grace and mercy. But he knows that we cannot yet remain on the heights forever, but that we must instead, descend again from the mountain of vision, back into the ‘ordinary’ world, but still taking that visionary gleam with us, ready to see the light of heaven suddenly shining out from anywhere in the midst of the every day, and so the next phrase in his poem is Heaven in Ordinary.
As you can imagine I approached this, perhaps the most famous phrase in Herbert’s poem, with some trepidation. The phrase ‘Heaven in ordinary’ always seems to summon that other famous verse of Herbert’s, which we sing together in church:
A Man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye,
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass
And then the Heavens espy.
Just for a moment the glassy surface of the world, dusty and familiar, is cleared and cleansed; something shines through, and we have a brief anticipation of Paul’s great hope for us all: that though ‘now we see through a glass darkly’, one day ‘we shall know as we are known’, one day ‘we shall see face to face’, and the face we shall see is the face of Love. It also happened that I wrote this poem just before Christmas and it seemed to me that any understanding of Herbert’s phrase must start with the moment the Lord of Heaven was born on earth,a midst the dirt and clutter of the stable and the manger.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.
Because high heaven made itself so low
That I might glimpse it through a stable door,
Or hear it bless me through a hammer blow,
And call me through the voices of the poor,
Unbidden now, its hidden light breaks through
Amidst the clutter of the every day,
Illuminating things I thought I knew,
Whose dark glass brightens, even as I pray.
Then this world’s walls no longer stay my eyes,
A veil is lifted likewise from my heart,
The moment holds me in its strange surprise,
The gates of paradise are drawn apart,
I see his tree, with blossom on its bough,
And nothing can be ordinary now.