I owed thousands and much more.
I did believe that I did nothing owe,
And liv’d accordingly; my creditor
Believes so too, and lets me go.
Faith makes me any thing, or all
That I believe is in the sacred story:
And where sin placeth me in Adam’s fall,
Faith sets me higher in his glory.
If I go lower in the book,
What can be lower than the common manger?
Faith puts me there with him, who sweetly took
Our flesh and frailty, death and danger.
If bliss had lien in art or strength,
None but the wise or strong had gained it:
Where now by Faith all arms are of a length;
One size doth all conditions fit.
Do read the whole poem. Being brought up on the Welsh/English border, Herbert was someone with whose poetry I grew up, and when I was a teenager I would spend hours reading it. Back then, as teenagers will, I was keen on what might be called the ‘experiental’ poems, that is those which emphasised the personal experience, but as I grew older, I came to see that for Herbert, the collective experience was just as important, and that for him, the Church and its public worship was critical:
Although private devotion has its value, according to Herbert it is the corporate worship of the Church that must be at the center of one’s relationship with God. As he puts it in ‘The Church Porch‘:
Though private prayer be a brave design,
Yet public hath more promises, more love …
Pray with the most: for where most pray, is heaven.
‘All’, he reminded his very class-conscious readers, ‘are equal within the church’s gate’. His advice then is still good: ‘Resort to sermons, but to prayers most:
Praying’s the end of preaching’.
He wrote about the Anglican services, and in many ways anticipates my beloved John Keble in the quiet piety which finds itself in service to others. Herbert and Keble were both devoted parish priests who knew that it was in living life in Christ everyday that one found the right way. Not for either great and heroic martyrdom, but rather, as Keble put it:
The trivial round, the common task, /Would furnish all we ought to ask; /Room to deny ourselves; a road /To bring us, daily, nearer God.
For most of us, if we can do this, we do well.
No one, I think, quite captured th way in which, in prayer, we can be overcome by the richness of God’s gift to us:
Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-daies world transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices; something understood.
And in that ‘something understood’ we yield in silence to God’s will.