Poetry as Theology: Reading George Herbert’s “Prayer [I]”

Update: each phrase of the poem below now links to its corresponding post. All of the posts can still also be found here.

Readers of this blog (and people who know me) will be aware that devotional poetry is close to my heart. (See this post on George Herbert, in which it was all I could do not to include at least twenty poems, or this one on Gerard Manley Hopkins, or any of the Sunday Morning Poems I’ve posted.) It would be very hard for me to have a spiritual life without poetry—and why should I have to? Yet if all God-talk is theology, what are the implications of having that theology take poetic form? Some time ago I read a book arguing that poetry in the Early Modern period handled the realities of conversion more effectively and accurately than did prose theological treatises. At stake here is nothing less than Pilate’s famous question: “What is truth?” Is truth contained in rigorous arguments moving logically from proposition to proposition, or is there something more evasive about it, something toward which we can only hint through images and metaphors? Or, conversely, are images and metaphors a cheat, deceiving us into the belief that there’s an easy way around working carefully and patiently to reason out the truth? [Read more…]

Prayer: “Something understood”

Part 28 in a series; see other parts here. This concludes the series.

Being seen as we are is a basic human need that all too often goes unmet. We understand each other only imperfectly, try though we may. Although such limitations do allow for people to surprise us, they also mean that we inadvertently hurt each other. We live our lives caught in this web of understanding and misunderstanding, and the more we wrestle with it, the more entangled we can become.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “The land of spices”

Part 27 in a series; see other parts here.

Life is not really as dull as it sometimes seems. A richness runs through our everyday, but its flavor can become so familiar that we forget to taste it. Prayer exists to draw out that taste, to let it rest on our tongues so that we can exult in its savor. Our lives are great gifts, but it’s easy to let the time pass without tasting them fully. We need to spice them frequently with prayer.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “The soul’s blood”

Part 26 in a series; see other parts here.

Without prayer there can be no spiritual life. Fortunately prayer takes many forms, and we grow spiritually by discovering and developing different forms and learning how to use them, which is why Sarah Coakley likes to describe a theologian as the one who truly prays. Prayer is quite literally the medium in which we work out our God-talk. That said, prayer is not something we master, but something we practice. Prayer ought to be a discipline, a form of spiritual exercise or ascetic practice. The need for form, even in extempore prayer, makes prayer an art: the pas de deux we dance with God.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Church-bells beyond the stars heard”

Part 25 in a series; see other parts here.

Sometimes life closes in, and we feel very small, like isolated atoms bouncing through an indifferent universe. We sense time passing on toward the moment when it will cease to matter for us. We begin to doubt that anyone or anything will truly hear us, however far our cries may carry.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “the bird of Paradise”

Part 24 in a series; see other parts here.

Prayer can feel like a kind of death. So many of our waking hours, and especially the restless hours of night, we spend shouldering our burdens and trying to take one more step forward, when that is the price of life against the stasis of death. In prayer, though, we let the weight press us down to our knees, and even onto our faces, as we try to lay the burden down before God.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “The milky way”

Part 23 in a series; see other parts here.

The relationship between mothers and babies affords an intimacy perhaps unparalleled in human experience. The baby begins life as something simultaneously part and not part of the mother, and only slowly dissociates itself, as it must. Early in this process of separation, the baby nurses, [1] living now outside of the mother but still drawing nutriment from her in an experience of bodily nearness. And, as recent studies of lactation have shown, nursing is not a one-way experience, in that the baby’s saliva communicates chemically with the mother’s breast. Nursing is thus our first instruction in negotiating intimate relationships. It is our first instruction in prayer.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Man well drest”

Part 22 in a series; see other parts here.

Prayer often finds us* at our worst, or at least what can feel like less than our best. We sob convulsively, shout angrily, plead earnestly—or we engage in an activity so rote that we can forget we’re doing it, embarrassed at how many of our prayers are thus. True, there are those moments of pure, blissful praise, or the times when grace’s undertow pulls us suddenly into the depths of divine love, and perhaps in such moments we could think ourselves spiffy, if only the familiar pride were not suddenly and mysteriously out of reach.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Heaven in ordinary”

Part 21 in a series; see other parts here.

The idea of heaven usually stands in contrast to our everyday lives. Heaven is supposed to be where all that we have done and all that we have left undone finally gets sorted out, where at last we can give proper time to everybody and everything we care about, precisely because time is no more. In heaven, we at last escape the temporal for the eternal, which alone has ample room for our loves. Heaven becomes the projection screen for the unrealized imperfections of life, our photographic negatives in need of development.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Gladness of the best”

Part 20 in a series; see other parts here.

Although our world roils with its share of ugliness and violence, it also brims with beauty and goodness. Everything from a child’s hug to Duruflé motets to an insalata caprese with perfectly ripe summer tomatoes and basil fresh from the garden, good fresh mozzarella, a little sea salt, a robust olive oil, and aged balsamic vinegar purchased at an acetaia in Modena—such things enliven our world and carry with them the savor of divine life.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Exalted Manna”

Part 19 in a series; see other parts here.

We wander in this wilderness of life, sojourning strangers for our threescore and ten, our time marked out by the recurring cycle of hunger, whether for the fleshpots of Egypt or the milk and honey of the promised land. Hunger leads us into a strange temporality, its present pangs bound up in memories of past satiety and the hope for future feasts. Sometimes we can almost even taste what is no longer there or what soon will be, and thus we pray, straining to bring near what still feels so far away.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Bliss”

Part 18 in a series; see other parts here.

So much of prayer feels like a lover’s quarrel, hashing out a messy but committed relationship. Love provides the foundation, but manifests as struggle. Like any relationship, ours with God has its ups and downs. But oh how high are the highs! With feet on the ground and arms raised to the heavens, our souls, in ecstatic elevation, can mingle with the rich fires of star-birthing nebulae or rise with the morning fog as it clears out of a cold spring canyon.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Love”

Part 17 in a series; see other parts here.

Prayer can be both an immersion in love and an education in it, precisely because prayer is a central venue in our ongoing repentance, or turning toward God. Nothing illustrates love’s richness in paradox quite like prayer, for in prayer the experience of being overwhelmed by grace and acceptance can coincide with that of feeling deeply that serious things in our lives need to change. Adding to the complication, sometimes in prayer we learn that we need to accept the things we thought needed to change and that we need to change things we’ve long accepted. Love is always both simpler and much more difficult than it appears.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Joy”

Part 16 in a series; see other parts here.

So often, prayer means wrestling with the angel, refusing to let go until God leaves us with a blessing. For all that, though, sometimes prayer is pure joy, the sun clearing the horizon and driving out the shadows. If there are prayers of anguish, there are also prayers of exultation, when we find ourselves so awash in grace as to be overwhelmed. Through heaving sobs of joy we can find no other words than: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Peace”

Part 15 in a series; see other parts here.

Peace is the prayer on our lips that our own hands must answer. As human beings we are capable of great evil, but also great beauty and goodness. We live most of the time not altogether resolved between them, and sometimes we purchase a sham peace by dissociating ourselves from the evil around us. “Not I,” we say, instead of “Lord, is it I?” To which the answer, if we’re really being honest, is usually at least partly “yes.” We are of a species with the human horrors we see, and there will not be peace so long as we deny that fact.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Softness”

Part 14 in a series; see other parts here.

Prayer is quiet, but never quite silent. So much of prayer involves learning how to calm the noise in order to hear properly—or learning how to hear through the noise. We often call the Spirit’s voice still and small, but it is also soft, in volume, tone, and affect. It manages to be gentle and unobtrusive while also pervading everything, and in prayer God teaches us how to listen.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear.”

Part 13 in a series; see other parts here.

The notion of prayer as a kind of melody sung in unison with God can give great comfort—until we realize that we’re trying to match pitch with a thunderbolt. It’s not that God is out to get us, but that the music running through all of creation is so immense and powerful that it inspires awe, and, if we’re paying attention, not a little terror. Prayer connects us to the music of vast overhanging cliffs, of entire oceans being lifted by the moon’s gravity, of nebulae swirling with newborn stars. Our lives and deaths seem like insignificant pinpricks on such a scale.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “The six-days’ world transposing in an hour”

Part 12 in a series; see other parts here.

The music of our lives often seems to demand the skills of a Franz Liszt to play, as though only the capacity to fly through a torrent of impossible notes with an obscenely graceful sprezzatura will do. Amidst our busyness a voice (the ghost of piano teachers past) whispers, “Keep time! Keep time!” and we promise we will, once we can exchange this molto allegro for andante. Too often, though, such promises end up obliterated by thirty-second-note runs tangled in a barbed wire of accidentals, and when we emerge on the other side, dripping sweat, the voice continues: “Keep time!”

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Christ-side-piercing spear”

Part 11 in a series; see other parts here.

Codex Vindobonensis 2554, fol. 2v (France, 1225) Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Codex Vindobonensis 2554, fol. 2v (France, 1225)
Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

There’s a long history of seeing Jesus’ side wound as a special route to his heart: I especially love this 13th-century depiction of the Church being born from his side. Herbert also has a deliciously strange poem called “The Bag” that puts the image to good effect in relation to prayer:

If ye have any thing to send or write,
I have no bag, but here is room:
Unto my Fathers hands and sight,
Beleeve me, it shall safely come.
That I shall minde, what you impart;
Look, you may put it very neare my heart.

And, lest this all begin to seem too odd, too non-Mormon, it’s in our hymnal, too:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me:
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From thy riven side which flowed
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Reversed Thunder”

Part 10 in a series; see other parts here.

Feeling a divine thunderbolt tear through one’s spine en route to its ground cannot be called a pleasant experience. Typically in its aftermath, as smoke rises from our hair and electrical remnants spark from our fingertips, we can do little but sit still in a state of, well, shock. At times, though, our eyebrows tingle with premonition, and we manage to send the bolt back upwards with a forehand sharp enough to engender hubristic self-comparisons to Rafael Nadal in his prime.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Sinner’s tow’r”

Part 9 in a series; see other parts here.

We all know the terrible feeling that follows the realization of a mistake: it’s a human experience whose commonality ranks somewhere between waking up and breathing. Sometimes this experience provokes defensive anger, as we try with all the violence we can muster to make the mistake stick to somebody else. Even when we manage the necessary legerdemain, though, the gnawing at our hearts remains. Even if most mistakes aren’t exactly the Furies pursuing Orestes after he killed his mother, they can still be nastily persistent ghosts.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Engine against th’Almighty”

Part 8 in a series; see other parts here.

In prayer, God values our candor, meaning that God honors even words like these of Job’s:

If I summoned him and he answered me,
I do not believe that he would listen to my voice.
For he crushes me with a tempest,
and multiplies my wounds without cause;
he will not let me get my breath,
but fills me with bitterness. (Job 9:16-18, NRSV)

Sometimes our relationship with God is such that no prayer short of battering rams and catapults loaded with shrapnel and explosives will do. Herbert wrote a poem that figures tears and prayers as artillery, but I’m thinking more of the rage he expresses toward God in “The Collar” (where “choler” is one of the many puns in the title): “Have I no harvest but a thorn / to let me blood?”

So, it’s okay if our prayers beat and kick at God’s door—which really can seem closed to us at times—and it’s okay if we scream and swear in the process. Anger has a way of focusing our sights on the precise target we mean to hit, which paradoxically means that we rarely think of God so intensely as when we rage at the heavens. In quiet meditation we long to approach the throne, but in anger we can feel near enough to close our fingers around the divine throat, and when we attain such proximity God can the more easily reply: “My child.”

Prayer: “The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth”

Part 7 in a series; see other parts here.

Being an adult means spending quite a bit of time metaphorically at sea, not quite sure whether we’re in or out of our depth. Certainly we only rarely see to the bottoms of things. Herbert’s claim that prayer can find the bottom and measure its depth thus seems like a stretch. After all, the mere fact of praying doesn’t exempt anybody from occasional or even systematic cluelessness. What’s the use, then?

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Heart in pilgrimage”

Part 6 in a series; see other parts here.

Augustine famously wrote that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. (Herbert has a poem about that, too.) Our lives consist of so many cordial peregrinations as we seek to love and be loved, and while saying that all our loves are best founded in God’s love is easy, the practicalities tend to be messier. Devout Jews pray twice daily to love God with all their heart, soul, and might; so serious and difficult is the task of love that only that much prayer will do. In prayer we are pilgrims for love—a destination we never quite seem to understand.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “The soul in paraphrase”

Part 5 in a series; see other parts here.

In Romans 8 Paul writes that we do not know how to pray as we ought. Our hearts teem with tangles and fullnesses that resist expression in words or even thoughts. Sometimes the only prayer we can manage is lifting the knot of feelings toward God and saying, “See!” I believe that God does see such prayers, and yet our minds, even below the realm of speech, operate through forms and concepts that give shape and meaning to our experience—an orderliness made possible only by leaving many, many things out. We inhabit the world in paraphrase, so how can we pray otherwise?

[Read more…]

Prayer: “God’s breath in man returning to his birth”

Part 4 in a series: see other parts here.

The second creation story in Genesis features the vivid image of God creating a human (ha’adam) from the dust and breathing into its nostrils the breath of life. Breath becomes one of scripture’s most potent images, as the Hebrew ruach shifts into the Greek pneuma and the Latin spiritus—words that all indicate a complex of meanings including breath, wind, and spirit. Only in that moment of inspiration (“breathing in”) did the first human become a living soul. Our life, lest we forget, consists in this breath, not in bread alone. Prayer, then, is the stuff of very life.

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Angels’ Age”

This is part 3 in a series; see previous parts here.

Prayer, Herbert says, brings us into the time of the angels. Our lives seem so simple, temporally: one thing succeeds another as the present recedes into the past and stretches into the future. Prayer complicates things, though, by interjecting this orderly succession with eternity. Eternity doesn’t just interrupt time or transcend it; eternity transforms time. Paul describes the effect in 1 Corinthians 7:

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (NRSV)

[Read more…]

Prayer: “Church’s banquet”

Part 2 in a series; see all posts here.

Why does Herbert call prayer—and not the Eucharist—the “Church’s banquet”? Christian worship seems to have involved communal meals (“love feasts”) from very early on; Paul talks about them in 1 Corinthians 11, among other places. I love the notion of the sacrament as a hearty feast rather than a nibble and a sip, although these suffice.

Herbert lived not so long after the fierce 16th-century debates about the sacrament, in which theologians lobbed words like transubstantiation and consubstantiation at each other with something like violence. Scholars have argued quite a bit over Herbert’s own allegiances in these arguments. Herbert was a pastor, though, before he was a theologian: does fighting over how exactly the sheep are fed actually feed the sheep? [Read more…]

Tuesday in Holy Week

Part of the punitive appeal of crucifixion lies in the fact of public display: nothing says “remember who’s in charge” quite like a bunch of corpse-bedecked crosses outside the city gates. So, too, with Jesus, crucified as a troublemaker alongside two thieves and atop a hill, such that the scene might be visible from a distance. The message from the Romans: “We will not tolerate that business about destroying the temple and raising it up in three days, no sir, so don’t even think about it.” [Read more…]

George Herbert: Shepherd and Peacemaker

The 1630s—the decade of George Herbert’s death—were a tense period in the history of the English church. William Laud, bishop of London since 1628, became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. He came to office with an ambitious program of reform designed to bring unity to a fracturing polity. The fault lines had begun to show in 1625 when Puritans began to turn the methods honed in the anti-Catholic pamphlet wars on the bishops of their own church. Laud hoped to bring unity by simmering down the conflict with Rome, but this of course only fostered further accusations that he was a crypto-papist. Instead of bringing peace, Laud’s program culminated in two disastrous wars with Scotland—events that helped precipitate the civil wars of the 1640s. [Read more…]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 13,376 other followers