Westminster College - George Herbert

St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury
Jeudi, Février 27, 2014

We’re celebrating the feast of George Herbert today.  He was a poet and priest of the Church of England, born in 1593 to a wealthy and politically well-connected family.  He went to Cambridge at 16, earned a bachelor’s degree, and was appointed a fellow of Trinity College at the age of 21.  In 1620 Herbert was appointed the university’s Public Orator, a nod to his skill in Greek and Latin as well as English.  Has Westminster ever had a Public Orator?

Herbert’s connections led him to a robustly public life.  He was elected to Parliament at the age of 31, and with his experience as Public Orator he aspired to the position of secretary of state.  But his friends in high places, including King James I, died soon after.  Political life – at least then – depended on connections, and it was apparent to Herbert that the new king would not look on him as favorably as had the last.  He left Parliament and his post of public orator and sought ordination as a priest. 

He was made a deacon in 1626 and went to live at a semi-monastic community, Little Gidding, with his friend and fellow Member of Parliament Nicholas Ferrar.  He married in 1629 and the new king gave him a job even before he was priested, to serve congregations near Salisbury.  They have names as wonderful as this church’s:  St. Peter’s Fugglestone and St. Andrew’s Bemerton.  Lest this seem an unalloyed honor, the king had essentially exiled him from the capital, and put him out to pasture in these small, poor, rural communities.[1]

Herbert dug in with all the resources he had – mind, money, time, hands, and friends.  He served the people there with utter faithfulness, and found the time and quiet for reflection and writing.  He made his wife Jane the almoner of the parish – giving her charge of distributing funds to the poor.  He helped rebuild the church buildings with his own funds, and badgered his connections for more.  One evening he came late for worship at Salisbury Cathedral because he’d stopped to help a farmer get his fallen horse upright and cart reloaded.[2]

His best known writings are a collection of poetry[3] and a commentary on the life of a rural priest, The Country Parson.  He’s remarkably clear about the innate value of all that is, from plows to crops to daily labor, insisting that “nothing is little in God’s service.”  He is earnest and pointed about those who want to lord it over others, as Peter’s letter puts it.  Herbert includes this advice to other country parsons about some parishioners:  “If any gentry and nobility of the parish sometimes make it a piece of state not to come at the beginning of the service with their poor neighbors, but at mid-prayers, both to their own loss and of theirs also who gaze upon them when they come in, … he (the parson) causes them to be presented, or if the churchwardens be affrighted with their greatness.”… he does it himself, “protesting to them that it’s not by ill will, but the obligation of his calling to obey God rather than men.”[4]  After just three years in those country parishes, a month before he turned 40, Herbert died of tuberculosis.  They called it consumption then.   

We know George Herbert for his way with words and the way he lived the Word.  The poetry of his life has inspired many – in prayer and hymnody and example.  His life illuminates the gospel we heard today – blessed are the poor, meek, and merciful, for they will meet God and find themselves in a heavenly communion/community.  When the world rebuffed his first-chosen path, he found another way to lead and serve the people around him. 

The world around us yearns for souls who will let go of the lures of preferment, powerful station, and pride of place in order to find ways of transformation.  The principalities and powers are continually at work on those lures, as C.S. Lewis’ Wormwood would recognize, burnishing the chains and gilding the bars of confinement.  News reports yesterday led with a story about status on Delta Airlines frequent flier program – a new level of thralldom to which some can aspire – based on the price paid for tickets.  Arizona is wrestling with a law that is supposedly about religious freedom, but smells more like a way to sanctify small-mindedness.  Many of our states and cities continue to resist living wage laws and basic support for all parts of the population, asserting that the economic benefit to those who create jobs trumps the basic and inalienable rights of all to life abundant, liberty from indentured servitude, and a search for the happiness of family life and sabbath rest.  Consumption is still killing us.

The basic issues Herbert faced in his rural parishes are still with us – disease, stoop labor, inadequate schooling, insecure housing, lack of employment, and social and economic division.  The same hungers for life and more of it drove crowds to hear Jesus tell them that there is hope for the poor, the grieving, and those who seek justice.  That hope lies on the road he followed, for God hears the cries of hungry wanderers in the wilderness, and God knows the lament of unjust incarceration and capital punishment, in God’s own self. 

That hope Jesus offers lies in building intentional community, like the band who followed him around Galilee, like the group at Little Gidding, or like the multiplying possibilities of new monasticism.[5]  Hope lies in living and learning from those who don’t sit on the top of the pile.  The seminary that trains clergy for churches in the Philippines sends its students to live with families in the ghetto for three months.[6]  Young Adult Service corps members, like Peace Corps volunteers, offer themselves for service in poor and humble settings, and find themselves transformed beyond any mortal expectation.  Westminster’s connections with Rwanda are ways of becoming “poor in spirit.”[7]

Yet the spiritual attitudes that Herbert exemplified are not limited to poor and humble settings.  This version of the sermon on the mount says “blessed are the poor in spirit,” and they are even more urgently needed in the halls of power, where large-scale decisions are made that affect the lives of us all, especially the poor.  We need leaders who can see poetry in the lives of immigrants, and be public orators on their behalf.  The world desperately needs gifted leaders with a heart for the rural poor and the urban poor and the increasingly poverty-stricken landscapes we share.  For the growing poverty of this created garden is already dooming more and more human beings to shortened and more hazardous lives.  The structural systems that grind the poor will only change through the courage and boldness of public orators with poor hearts, and pure ones.

This building was set up as a memorial to a man who motivated the world to address great evil, and Winston Churchill began to raise his voice while in his own political exile in the 1930s.  He is remembered in a building first dedicated to the mission of God, who came among us as one poor in spirit, so that we might be transformed for that mission of restoring and healing the world.  God will use any who are willing to be instruments of peace, knowing that even the most humble task is essential.  Will you become poor in spirit?

 



[1] Brightest and Best p 52

[2] Stars in a Dark World  p 122

[3] The English poems are collected in The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations

[4] A Priest to the Temple: The Country Parson His Character and Rule of Holy Life

[5] Episcopal Service Corps is a good example

[6] St. Andrew’s Seminary, Manila, serves the Philippine Episcopal Church and the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (Philippine Independent Church, with whom The Episcopal Church is in full communion)

[7] the Bright Lights campaign to ensure that primary students in Rwanda can study at night; health campaigns to build clinics; projects for peace that are starting microfinance programs, agriculture, educational, and employment initiatives