George Herbert’s Secrets of Soul Revealed in a Package of Poetry

He suffered with poor health throughout his life and died of consumption in 1633 at the age of 39.  Before he died he sent a collection of poems to a friend, the founder of the Anglican religious community, Little Gidding. This request, it is said, accompanied the manuscript:

Sir, I pray deliver this little book to my brother [Nicholas] Ferrar, and tell him that he shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my master; in whose service I have now found perfect freedom; desire him to read it, and then, if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public; if not let him burn it; for I and it are less than the least of God’s mercies.

The poetry in question came from the heart of the Anglican clergyman George Herbert.  Before reading his work, it’s helpful to reflect on the struggle that brought it forth. It is a great temptation during times of pain and sorrow to believe the lie that others do not wrestle with as many difficulties as we do. 

When our hearts are heavy, we see the celebrity’s smile, we hear the beat of a happy tune, we witness an athlete’s victory dance and we respond with envy, failing to recognize how mixed with joy and pain is the life of every single soul.

Herbert, who with his wife raised three orphaned girls while serving the needs of a rural Anglican parish, daily enduring his own poor health, responded to his trials by creating prayerful poems.  At the end of his life he offered them to a friend he deemed worthy of deciding whether or not they might help another “dejected poor soul” find the path to peace.  Herbert was free enough to add “burn it”–should the other deem his art to be nothing out of the ordinary.  He was humble enough to refer to his work and even his very self as “less than the least of God’s mercies.” 

Humility is a secret of Herbert’s soul.

To see oneself as “less than the least of God’s mercies” is to know oneself beloved, safe in the hands of the Father, no matter the trial or testing or even the outcome of one’s life work.  Another of Herbert’s secrets is a deliberate lifting of the heart to the Creator in an offering of praise.  Among his lines still sung today are these:
Let all the world in every corner sing,
my God and King!
The church with psalms must shout,
no door can keep them out;
but, above all, the heart
must bear the longest part.
Let all the world in every corner sing,
my God and King!

“Dejected poor souls” may still be happily lifted upward by taking up the weapon of praise when battling the downward spiral brought on by difficulty and desolation.

This does not mean covering heartache over with a fake smile. Rather, the genuine heart makes prayerful time in the presence of God to recognize and feel whatever feelings are present.  Every one of of them (hatred, vengeance, apathy, envy and more) is reflected in Psalms.  The psalter is medicine for the soul, opening blind eyes to the truth that we are not alone as we bring the ugliness of our hearts to our Father.

Herbert_altarThen sorrow and joy can  intermingle, as they do in Psalm 22, the opening line of which Christ prayed on his cross. The psalm begins in the agony of desolation:  “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” and concludes with an offering of trustful praise to the God of deliverance.

Herbert’s poem, “The Altar” also reveals the agony of a heart determined to praise.  It is one of Herbert’s pattern poems, its very shape reflecting its subject.

“A broken altar, Lord, thy servant rears/” he cries, “Made of a heart and cemented with tears.”
These are not the words of a man without sorrow.  They display the shape of a wounded heart surrendered to the Holy One. The poet fights his way to the praise that brings peace:
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame
To praise thy name.
Here, the man who knew himself  to be “less than the least of God’s mercies” finds Easter_Wings_textfreedom in the total surrender of praise under pressure.
“Easter Wings,” another pattern poem, reveals the same interior struggle and offers the same resolution, this time with the ultimate hopeful twist.
Reflecting on the mystery of the Incarnation, the belief that the historic person of Christ was indeed God, humble enough to take the flesh of suffering humanity through death and into eternity, Herbert knows what to do with his pain.
                 With thee
                Let me combine,
                And feel thy victorie:
                       For, if I imp my wing on thine,
                                Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
By embracing Christ’s crucified and trusting in the power of his resurrection, Herbert feels Christ’s triumph and knows that even his affliction advances his flight toward God. He only need attach his “wings” to the risen Christ in whom the ultimate victory has already been secured.
Humility. Praise. Resurrection hope, turning all tragedy into into Christ’s triumph.  Secrets of a humble soul left as a package of poetry for those of us still stumbling on the path to peace.

sparrow.clrReads & Other Seeds

Another realistic optimist in my go-to list of hopeful straight shooters is singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson. See In the Night:  A Song for Your Playlist of Hope.

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2 thoughts on “George Herbert’s Secrets of Soul Revealed in a Package of Poetry

  1. Oh, Peggy. This was a much needed post my dear friend. Hope you are well. Will you be headed back to school this fall?
    Love you loads,


    Laura L. Kelso

    1. Thank you Laura! I gained a lot from writing it. The image of the altar is one I’ll carry with me. I am going back to school in a few weeks. Enjoying the break filled with busy-ness of another kind and many blessings. You are in my prayers!

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