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.
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.
Humility is a secret of Herbert’s soul.
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 heartmust 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.
Then 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 HEART aloneIs such a stone,As nothing butThy pow’r doth cut.Wherefore each partOf my hard heartMeets in this frameTo praise thy name.
With theeLet me combine,And feel thy victorie:For, if I imp my wing on thine,Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
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