Tag Archives: George Herbert

Lent with Herbert Day 23: The Bird of Paradise

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.

Today we come to one of Herbert’s more intriguing emblems of prayer: he calls prayer the bird of paradise. Scholars tell us that in the seventeenth century it was believed that an exotic species called ‘the bird of paradise’ was unique in having no feet, no means of standing or perching, and it was thought therefore that it lived in perpetual flight, never stopping to rest, but ceaselessly beating its wings from birth to death. Of course this was a piece of folklore and mythologising, but the bird became proverbial, and it’s easy to see how Herbert might find in it an emblem of unceasing prayer. Perhaps too he thought of the bird as unable to rest in this world precisely because it was a bird of paradise, and could only rest at last in its eternal home. So it might be with our souls in prayer. All these thoughts were also in my mind as I wrote, but for me there was also something more. As I thought of that poor restless bird I suddenly remembered the beautiful lines in Bob Dylan’s heart-breaking song ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, lines in which he expresses our experience of brokenness and through it all out restless yearnings:

And when it all came crashing down

I became withdrawn

the only thing I knew how to do

was keep on keeping on

like a bird that flew

tangled up in blue.

So in my response I find Herbert and Dylan somehow singing together!

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title

The Bird of Paradise

Poor bird of paradise: she finds nowhere

To rest or settle on her long flight home,

But circles the blue heavens endlessly,

Or so we once believed, and she became

A perfect emblem of unceasing prayer:

Born out of paradise and restlessly

Seeking return, pressing on steady wings,

Beating perpetual blessing through the air,

Which parts to give her passage, and still brings

Us echoes of the haunting song she sings.

I find in her a fitting emblem too,

She sings in me, but now she is the one

In Dylan’s song, who keeps on keeping on,

Like all of us, still tangled up in blue.

the bird of paradise

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Lent with Herbert Day 22: The Milky Way

The Milky Way from an Indiana back road

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. Today we come to Herbert’s 22nd image of prayer which is The Milky Way. I have used this sonnet to explore a little of what made the Milky Way an emblem of prayer for Herbert, but I have also availed myself of images he could never have seen, but would have loved: the glorious pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Herbert could see Heaven in Ordinary but he could also lift his eyes above the horizon and see how the heavens themselves declared the glory of the lord. In these dark times we need sometime to lift our eyes, and I hope this poem and these images might offer us all a little burst of light and colour. I hope you enjoy it.

By the way, if you enjoy Herbert you might like to know Ive started a little Youtube Chanel the latest episode features a reading from George MacDonald about Herbert.

As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking the title or the ‘play’ button.


The Milky Way

It’s always there, but when our lights are low,

Or altogether out, we see it shine;

Only when things are darkest here below

Do we discern its soft pearlescent sheen,

Gracefully traced across the midnight sky,

In whose light Herbert saw the path of prayer.

Though pale and milky to the naked eye,

The view from Hubble, far above the air,

Shows us a star-field rich with many colours

‘Patines of bright gold’ and blue and red,

Abundance of a hundred billion stars

Whose centre lies in Sagittarius,

Darting their glory, like the myriad

Of saints and angels who all pray for us.

The view from Hubble

 

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Lent with Herbert Day 21: Man Well Dressed

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, Heaven in Ordinary we saw how for just for a moment the glassy surface of the world, dusty and familiar, is cleared and cleansed; something shines through. Now, in the mysterious phrase ‘Man Well Dressed’. In his Cambridge days Herbert was knows as a dapper, even a natty dresser and he had a taste for the finer things in life. All these he gave to Christ who gave him in return a new and even richer clothing.

This phrase in  Herbert’s poem keys in to one of the great themes of Scripture, the meaning of our nakedness and out clothing, the deepest senses in which we are all naked before God and yet God, in his infinite kindness, comes to us and clothes us in his own righteousness, wraps and mantles us in his holiness and his Love. Herbert was aware of the early tradition that saw the moment in Genesis, when we were cowering behind the fig-leaf of our excuses, God in his compassion made us clothes, (Gen. 3:21) as an anticipation of the coming of Christ, that one day we would ‘put on Christ’, that Christ is himself the wedding garment we all need but cannot make ourselves, to fit us for the high King’s feast. Paul’s letters are full of this, how we must be clothed in meekness and humility, and girdle all these virtues together with Love, and how that meekness, humility and Love are all given us in Christ. Indeed in his lovely poem ‘Sunday’ Herbert reminds us of what it cost Christ to make us this new garment:

The brightness of that day
We sullied by our foul offence:
Wherefore that robe we cast away,
Having a new at his expense,
Whose drops of bloud paid the full price,
That was requir’d to make us gay,
And fit for Paradise.

That lovely fusion of Genesis and Paul was in my mind too when I came to write my sonnet. As always you can hear me read it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.

Man Well Dressed

That old voice from the past: I was afraid,

For I was naked; and I hid myself.

And somehow I’m still there, lost in that glade,

Feeling exposed, ashamed, and, in my stealth

Still holding the fell fruit. He finds me as

My withered fig leaves fall away, and still

He clothes me, for the way of heaven is

Always to give and give to those who steal.

 

But now the skin I’m clothed in is his own,

He makes himself a garment for us all,

At once the bridegroom and the wedding gown.

I step forth from the thicket of my fall

Already dressed in every gift he gave,

Gathered and girdled in his circling love.

Herbert in the vicarage garden at Bemerton

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Lent with Herbert Day 20: ‘Heaven in Ordinary’

 

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.

Heaven in Ordinary

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.

I see his tree, with blossom on its bough,
And nothing can be ordinary now.

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Lent with Herbert Day 19: Gladness of the Best

On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we have completed Herbert’s beautiful ascent back into bliss, a bliss which is all the more  real because it has passed through and transmuted sorrow, and in our last post we saw how Herbert focused that ascent and centred it in Christ in the single image ‘Exalted Manna’.

Now, having been lifted up by Christ, he 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. Indeed Herbert’s declaration that prayer is ‘gladness of the best’ is fully comprehensive and inclusive. Rather like the General Thanksgiving, it includes ‘our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life’, but also ‘the means of grace and the hope of glory’.

When I came to respond to this phrase in my sonnet sequence I found myself drawn to the word gladness itself, to the sheer glad sound of the word. It is striking that after ‘Manna’ which is a specifically religious word, Herbert chooses ‘gladness’, whose associations, for most of us, are as much ‘secular’ as ‘spiritual’. As for me, I can’t hear the word glad without at the same time hearing the glorious sound of The Beatles singing that word, singing ‘you know you should be glad’. So I decided to celebrate that memory in my response to Herbert’s phrase.

It so happened that shortly after I wrote this poem, I found myself recording some poetry and songs in Studio 2 in Abbey Road, as part of another project, and so I had the special pleasure of reading this ‘Abbey Road’ sonnet in a place that inspired it!

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title

Gladness of the best

If prayer itself is gladness of the best,

Then all the best in everything is prayer.

Everything excellent, from east to west,

The best of sacred, best of secular,

The Beatles sing you know you should be glad

And that glad song is gladness of the best,

You know you’re loved, you know that can’t be bad,

Your once-lost love is found and you are blessed.

 

From that exultant sound in Abbey Road

To jubilation in the Albert Hall,

From well-honed phrases, to a well-wrought ode,

Whatsoever things are lovely, all

Brought to the source of every excellence,

That God might give them back as sacraments.

you know you should be glad!

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Lent with Herbert Day 18: Exalted Manna

On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we have just completed Herbert’s beautiful ascent back into bliss, a bliss which is all the more  real because it has passed through and transmuted sorrow. We made this ascent by following Herbert’s steps upward in the single line:

Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss

Now, in the first phrase that follows on that line, Herbert sums it all up in the single image ‘Exalted Manna’. This is a particularly rich and densely packed moment in his poem and is Herbert’s way of saying that the whole ascent we have just completed was in fact enabled and given by Christ himself. The first point of reference for this image is of course the story in Exodus of how God gave the children of Israel the manna, the bread from heaven, to sustain them on their journey through the Wilderness. But Herbert quite rightly interprets this image through the teaching of Christ himself, in John’s Gospel chapter 6, where Jesus identifies himself with that manna, or rather shows that the bread from Heaven in the Old Testament was a sign or foreshadowing of God’s final gift of the true Bread from heaven, Jesus Christ himself:

32 Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.33 For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.34 Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.35 And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst…40 And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.

So Christ is the true Manna, and he who came down is also the one who is raised up; first on the cross (John 3:14), and then in the resurrection and ascension, the one who, through his death and resurrection and will raise up all who trust themselves to him.

This link, made by Christ himself between the manna in the wilderness and his gift of himself to the world, and more specifically the gift of his body and blood in the Eucharist (John 6:51-57), is the reason why the church chose to make communion wafers thin and white as a visual reference back to manna, and is also the reason why the priest elevates the consecrated wafer and shows it to the people as they make Eucharist together.  All these things were in my mind as I came to make my poetic response to Herbert’s phrase Exalted Manna, but as you will see ,the deepest connection for me, indeed one of my deepest connections with Herbert, is that like him I am a priest who has the awe-inspiring experience of raising up that consecrated host knowing that all the time it is Christ himself who holds and raises us.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.

Exalted Manna

I love to lift you in the Eucharist,

For you descended to the depth for me,

You stooped beneath the whole weight of the world,

And held it as the nails drove through each wrist,

You Held us all through your long agony,

Held all the taunts and curses that we hurled

Held all our hurts deep in your heart for healing

And when we lifted you onto your cross

You lifted all of us up to the Father

And made your outspread arms a sign, revealing

God’s all-sustaining love, that bears our loss,

Becomes our daily bread, calls as to gather

Each love, as manna in the wilderness.

So lift me as I lift you, lift and bless.

I love to lift you in the Eucharist

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Lent with Herbert Day 17: Bliss

After pausing for St. Patrick’s Day, we resume our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, Today we complete Herbert’s beautiful ascent back into joy, a joy which is all the more secure and real because it has passed through and transmuted sorrow. Herbert signals this in a single line:

Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss

The final step on Herbert’s ladder of ascent, which we have been climbing together these last five days, is Bliss. It may seem odd to be contemplating Bliss amidst all the sorrow and fear that surrounds us in this present crisis, but this is precisely the time when we need to lift our eyes to the Heavens, and contemplate that full and final bliss for which we are made. Herbert knew this well and of course his generation had to deal with several severe plague seasons, withdrawing from the fulness of their usual lives and sequestering themselves away, but such a time of crisis is just when faith deepens and just where the poetry comes from!

Like joy, bliss is almost impossible to write about, to put into words, it is beautiful, fleeting, not to be seized or grasped, or even sought, but only received as a sudden gift. As Eliot says of the experience ‘Quick, now, here, now, always/ a condition of complete simplicity’. In my poem I tried to evoke my own experience through particular glimpses and moments and to be true both to its brevity and its promise. For even the smallest moment of bliss seems to promise something more. As I came to compose the poem I found myself remembering one of Milton’s rare uses of this beautiful word in his Ode On Time, lines he wrote to be engraved on a clock. The poem begins ‘Fly envious Time till thou run out thy race’ but the lines that went to my heart, and which I was remembering when I wrote this poem were:

Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,

I loved that juxtaposition of the eternal and the personal, the infinite and the intimate, and I hope something of that comes across in my poem too.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

Bliss

Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss,

Love made this way, and lifts us up each stair,

Our maker knows that we were made for this:

The utter bliss that Heaven loves to share.

We glimpse it sometimes in another’s eyes,

We taste it sometimes on the tongues of prayer

It takes us wholly, takes us by surprise,

But grasping it, our arms clasp empty air.

 

Our bliss has vanished with a word of promise,

A sweet come-hither wave that offers more,

Each ecstasy has been a farewell kiss

That left us weeping on the hither shore.

Yet every passing moment whispers this:

Eternity shall love us into bliss.

Blake Jacob’s Ladder ‘Love made this way and lifts us up each stair’

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Lent with Herbert Day 16: Love

On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we continue Herbert’s beautiful ascent back into joy, a joy which is all the more secure and real because it has passed through and transmuted sorrow. Herbert signals this in a single line:

Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss

Yesterday’s sonnet reflected on joy, and today it is the turn of love.

Any poet responding to Herbert’s use of the word Love, is immediately confronted by the fact that Herbert himself has written perhaps the greatest ever poem on the Divine Love that meets us in Christ, a poem in which Christ is simply named Love. After Herbert’s masterpiece Love (III) with which he ends his great sequence The Temple, there is, in one sense, nothing more to be said. So in responding to the word Love in my own sequence, it seemed to me that the only thing I could do was to begin with Herbert’s poem, and simply join in the moment of welcome with which it opens. ‘Love Bade me welcome’ says Herbert, and so in my poem I create an archway through which my reader and I can walk to receive that welcome and respond to it, perhaps a little shyly, a little hesitantly, as Herbert did. You might like to re-read Herbert’s poem before you read mine!

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.

Love

Love took George Herbert’s hand and now takes mine,

The same quick eyes, the same wry, welcome smile,

The same spear-pierced and always-healing heart.

He turns to me and, taking bread and wine,

He spreads a table in the desert, while

I hesitate and draw back, stand apart,

Afraid, as always, of committed love.

But I have come too far to turn away,

Though Joy has vanished, she has led me here.

‘So come’, says Love, ‘there’s nothing left to prove,

And nothing that you need to do or say,

I am that perfect love that casts out fear,

Sit with George Herbert here, then taste and see

And find that all your loves are found in me.’

supper-at-emmaus_caracci

 

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Lent with Herbert Day 15: Joy

On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we have begun a beautiful ascent back into joy, a joy which is all the more secure and real because it has passed through and transmuted sorrow. Herbert signals this in a single line:

Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss

Today we come to the third step of this ascent which is Joy, perhaps the hardest of these gifts of prayer to convey as it is so fleeting, so beautiful, so much beyond words. Wordsworth spoke of being ‘Surprised by Joy, impatient as the wind‘, and for me too there is something in the swift and invisible wind that speaks of joy, especially the wind filling the sails of my little boat. I love sailing and it always brings me peace and joy, and I realised I had never actually written a poem about it, so when I came to write this sonnet on Joy I realised that this was the write time to enshrine my love of sailing in verse. I learnt t sail with my father who was a classicist, and when we were out sailing he loved to quote poetry, especially Homer, with his gripping accounts of the fleet that sailed ‘across the wine-dark sea’.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or on the title.

Joy

How does she come, my joy, when she comes walking

Over the wasteland and the empty waves?

She comes unbidden between sleep and waking,

She comes like winter jasmine on cold graves,

She comes like some swift wind, she fills my sails,

And on we surge, cresting the wine-dark sea,

The fine prow lifting, as my vessel heels,

The tiller tugs and quivers, and I’m free

Of all the land’s long cares. As that brisk breeze

Sings in the thrill and tremor of taut stays,

So my heart’s rigging, tuned and taut as these,

Sings with the wind that freshens into praise.

For when Joy comes, however brief her stay,

She parts my lips, and I know how to pray.

she fills my sails, And on we surge

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Lent with Herbert Day 14: Peace

On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we emerged at last from his dark series, within the longer sequence, then passed through a passage of transposition and retuning in the middle two lines of the poem:

The six-days world transposing in an hour,

Kind of tune that all things hear and fear

Today we continue Herbert’s beautiful ascent back into joy, a joy which is all the more secure and real because it has passed through and transmuted sorrow. Herbert signals this in a single line:

Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss

Yesterday’s sonnet reflected on softness, and today it is the turn of peace. The hidden text, the saying of Jesus, with which today’s poem (and Herbert’s original line) is in conversation, is John 14:27:

27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

The peace Christ gives us, and will always give us, is not the world’s peace, not the so-called peace imposed by the world’s winners on the ‘losers’, they exploit, not the phony peace that papers over injustice and exploitation, of which the Roman historian Tacitus said ‘They make a desolation and call it peace’. The peace of Christ is something different: living, active, creatively seeking reconciliation, proclaiming love even to enemies. How does that peace become prayer, and prayer become that peace? The image that came to me in the poem was of prayer itself patiently picking the locks on the chains of unforgiveness that bind us, and then  we, of our own choice, once freed, seeking and assisting, in prayer and in life, the very people, with whom we have not had peace before. Not easy, and only possible, like all forgiveness, if we know in our hearts that we have ourselves been completely forgiven.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title

Peace

 Not as the world gives, not the victor’s peace,

Not to be fought for, hard-won, or achieved,

Just grace and mercy, gratefully received:

An undeserved and unforeseen release,

As the cold chains of memory and wrath

Fall from our hearts before we are aware,

Their rusty locks all picked by patient prayer,

Till closed doors open, and we see a path

Descending from a source we cannot see;

A path that must be taken, hand in hand,

Only by those, forgiving and forgiven,

Who see their saviour in their enemy.

So reach for me. We’ll cross our broken land,

And make each other bridges back to Heaven.

Their rusty locks all picked by patient prayer

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