A reflection for the feast day of George Herbert, 17th century Anglican priest and poet.
Almighty God, you called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls and a poet: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to dedicate all our powers to your service; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
Those lines from Robert Frost’s 1916 poem “The Road Not Taken” are some of the most famous in contemporary poetry. And, if you put five English majors in a room, you’ll come up with at least eight different opinions about their meaning. But, I think they call us to today’s Gospel, and the Beatitudes.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:1-10
The Beatitudes, boiled down, are a call to take the path “less traveled by.” In a world that drives for the path of ambition, we seek the path that is meek and humble – that is, poor in spirit. In a world of “me first” we’re called to need righteousness as much as food and water, even to the point of our own persecution. In a world that tells us to fear and run from pain and suffering, we take the path that finds comfort in mourning, mercy by being merciful. We face the violence and oppression endemic in this world with peace and purity of heart.
Frost’s poem speaks to us of the point we face each day, at the diverging roads between the ways of this world and The Way of Christ. But, Frost also is appropriate for us today because he was inspired by the namesake of our feast day today, the 17th century priest and poet, George Herbert.
George Herbert was born in Wales on April 3, 1593 into a wealthy, powerful family. He had everything you need to walk with ease in the ways of this world. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge, and his oratory skills attracted the attention of King James I, who gave him a generous salary. He was on the path to be an ambassador, a royal advisor to the throne – to rise to highest heights of wealth and power.
But, Herbert’s life took a different path – with a bit of a shove from God. When the king died, Herbert lost his benefactor, and his place at court. He took this as an opportunity to answer an old calling – to walk down a different path – to ordination in the Church of England.
Far from the lavish life at court, Herbert immersed himself in the life of a priest in a small, humble parish. He devoted his days to carrying the Sacraments to sick parishioners, food and clothing to the poor. Morning and night, Herbert was known in his rural parish for ringing a small bell to celebrate the Daily Office for any who chose to join him.
In his humble parish, Herbert also found voice for his love of God in his poetry. Frost described the power of poetry to put into words that which we struggle to otherwise express: “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” Herbert’s genius was in putting words to not only emotion, but to faith itself.
In keeping with the humility that befits our image of this poetic priest, Herbert’s poetry was never known during his life. He worked for the sake of the work, finding and loving God in service to his parishioners and in the lines of poetry he penned — I imagine, after long days of work in his parish. The major collection of his poetry, “The Temple,” wasn’t published until after his death.
He had no fame in his ordained life, but his words – like his spirit itself – survived him to influence generations of contemporary British and American poets, including such titans as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot and – as I mentioned earlier – Robert Frost.
But, far more important than Herbert’s contributions to the skill and beauty of poetry, he taught those who followed to infuse their words with the power and grace of a loving God, to speak eloquently of faith without hardly mentioning it.
Herbert’s words echo in Emily Dickinson’s famous lines:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all –
Robert Frost drew on Herbert when he evoked the intersection of pain, anger, mourning and faith for a parent who has just buried a child: “‘I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed. / I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.’”
In his “Epitaph” Coleridge calls to us from the grave to choose the path of Christ: “Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame / He asked, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!”
Emerson, in his “Good-Bye,” looks on death not as a grim specter, but rather as the path of righteousness that turns from this world to inherit the kingdom of God: “Good-bye, proud world! I’m going home: Thou art not my friend, and I’m not thine.”
We could go on, through thousands of lines of poetry, to find echoes of Herbert’s influence. But, turning back to the Beatitudes: How do we reconcile meekness with power; How do we embrace blessings through persecution and poverty of spirit? For the answer, we can turn to a few lines from Herbert himself, from the 1633 poem “The Elixir”:
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.
How do we find the immense blessings of the Beatitudes in the sometimes mundane, grey, grim and painful aspects of this life? We find those blessings by allowing Christ to infuse our every act, as Herbert allowed Christ to infuse his words. To use Herbert’s imagery, this focus on Christ turns the humble act of sweeping a room into a holy devotion: it makes “drudgery divine” and turns the grimmest stone to gold.
Almost three centuries before the founding of Opus Dei, Herbert expressed in poetry these words from St. Josemaría Escrivá: “Great holiness consists in carrying out the little duties of each moment.” To take it further, Escrivá tells us: “Do everything for love. That way there are no little things. Everything is big.”
Life becomes immeasurably bigger for us when we stop following the path of this world, and pursue the path of the Beatitudes, the path of love, the path that finds divinity in drudgery, great holiness in the little duties of each moment.
Almighty God our heavenly Father, you declare your glory and show forth your handiwork in the heavens and in the earth: Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good; for the sake of him who came among us as one who serves, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
For the day’s readings and collect for George Herbert, visit the Lectionary page.