After finishing Living Stones, Living Hope,a five session study from USPG on Contextual Theology, our online Small Group Bible Study suggested that we have some sessions on “the Gnostic gospels”. As I had spent some time two decades ago studying with one of the leading experts on the Nag Hammadi Library, I was up for this. I created a PowerPoint Presentation, and this blog is a re-presentation of that.
Our online Small Group Bible Study meets online with Zoom every Wednesday at 7:30 PM EEST / 5:30 PM BST/ 12:30 PM EST. All are welcome to join – click this link or enter into your Zoom “Join Meeting Dialogue” Meeting ID: 850 4483 9927 Password: 010209.
Tonight’s study group will be a bit different from the usual, in that I will make a presentation for about an hour using a PowerPoint, and then we will have some discussion afterwards. Normally we just jump in and we have a much more open discussion, but the material here is not so well known in ordinary Christian circles, and even divinity students typically have little exposure to it. Thank you to those of you who looked at The Gospel of Thomas and its first fifteen sayings as suggested in my weekly e-mail – we will talk about those sayings later and perhaps in future sessions.
I remind you that we are doing this while we wait to get paper copies of John Stroyan’s Turned by Divine Love: Starting again with God and with others. Bishop John is the Bishop of Warwick in the Diocese of Coventry, and he and Mary Stroyan are occasional visitors to St Thomas’s. The book can be downloaded to a kindle, but many of us are still using paper only, and so we will have to wait a few weeks for copies to arrive from the UK or elsewhere, and also take some time to read this book (although it is relatively short!). I expect we will get to this, at the latest, by the beginning of July.
Discussion about the Nag Hammadi Library and Gnosticism tends to be confined to corners of academia concerned with early Christian history and Biblical studies. There have been some popular works – Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels has been a best-seller since 1989, but good ones have been few and far between. Various New Age groups have emerged that claim to be newly re-constituted Gnostic Churches.
In my experience, looking into Gnosticism is really like Alice going down the rabbit’s hole – you will get lost, feel startled by all the new information, and be overwhelmed by the mass of ancient texts and all the modern writings. Unless one already has a good grasp of early Christian history, including not only the age of Jesus and the disciples described in the New Testament, but also the post-apostolic age down through the second century to the fourth, it really will feel like Wonderland. If in the past five weeks we have been doing Contextual Theology for contemporary churches in Zambia, Korea, Brazil, Ireland, and India, this is Contextual Theology for 2nd Century Egyptians – and I suspect most of us have only a very limited idea of what that might be.
It can also be deeply unsettling, both because of the content and its implications. There is a narrative out there which describes a march towards orthodoxy (“right praise”) and orthopraxis (“right conduct”) from the ministry of Jesus straight through to the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. It describes what happened in the fourth century and thereafter, as what we know as the church, as inevitable and triumphant. It minimises the diversity of Christianity that was in existence in the first three centuries.
The fact is that there were faithful Christians who lived their lives long before the things we consider necessary to orthodox belief and church practice – a set canon of scriptures, settled understandings of who Jesus and the Trinity were according to the councils, a three-fold ordained ministry, the two major sacraments – calls into question those very things. When we actually read the texts we see similarities with things we know, while at the same time we are usually struck by the weirdness of it all. The texts of what is called “Gnosticism” are definitely Christian, but a very strange version of it.
When one goes to an amusement park there are sometimes warnings that the ride one is about to go on is “a dark ride”. Studying Gnosticism and the texts associated with that topic can be a bit like that – one heads into the unknown, and you cannot see everything. Even though you know the ride is entirely artificial and made by human hands, it’s not hard to be spooked by it all.
Well, with those caveats and warnings out of the way, I just want to also note a number of distinctions:
•Scrolls versus Codex. A book can be a scroll or a codex; in ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Roman times books were written on one side of a long piece of paper or vellum, and the rolled up. In a Jewish synagogue the Torah is usually chanted from a scroll by the rabbi or cantor or other individual requested to do so (such as an adolescent marking their bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah). Plato and Julius Caesar would have known books to be scrolls. Starting in the 2nd century a new technology wrote on both sides of rectangular sheets of paper or vellum, and the sheets were then sewn together on one side and given leather covers. This is what today we would normally call a book, but the technical name is “codex” (plural: “codices”). A codex is much easier to use than a scroll, as one does not have to roll and unroll them but just flip the pages. The codex dominated book technology right through the inventing of printing presses, and only now is it being challenged by e-books that can be read on Kindle or one’s phone.
•Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s in the Judean desert, which at that time was administered by Jordan and now is occupied by Israel. They date from before the time to Jesus to shortly thereafter, but they are not Christian, but Jewish. They are mostly in Hebrew, and contain much of what is now canonical scripture from the Hebrew Bible/Tanakh, but also various other non-canonical writings, such as the Damascus Rule and the War Scroll. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible dated from around 1050 CE; the Scrolls took this back a thousand years. What was striking was how little the text of the canonical scriptures had changed over that thousand years, which speaks to the diligence of the copyists over the ages.
•Nag Hammadi Library. The Nag Hammadi Library, which is the topic this evening, are not to be confused with the Dead Sea Scrolls (as people sometimes do). The texts from Nag Hammadi are leather-bound codices, not scrolls, and as manuscripts they date from the fourth century. They are Christian in nature, and in some cases express Anti-Jewish sentiments. So, very different!
The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Texts
The Library of Nag Hammadi was discovered in 1945 in Egypt, buried in the sands near the town of Nag Hammadi, well south of Cairo but not as far as Aswan. The Muslim farmers who discovered them had no idea what they had found, and some of them said they feared they were magical incantations. Some of the pages were apparently burnt, but the rest were preserved, and in due course they made their way to the antiquities market in Alexandria. Most of them were seized by the government of Egypt and are now in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. At least one codex was purchased and secretly taken out of Egypt – that codex was presented to the psychotherapist Carl Jung, and so is known as the Jung Codex; after many years in Zurich, it was returned to Cairo in 1975.
It is known that there was an ancient Coptic monastery founded by St Pachomius in the 4th century, and there is a consensus that the Library was buried by members of of that community sometime in the late 4th century or early 5th century.
The Library consists of 52 texts in thirteen codices. As is true of all ancient texts from the Mediterranean, they are handwritten. Scholars have arbitrarily numbered the codices from I to XIII, and the last two codices are in considerable disarray. All have been damaged with holes and tears in the papyrus, but it is usually possible to figure out what is missing.
Codex II consists of the following treatises or texts:
•The Apocryphon of John
•The Gospel of Thomas
•The Gospel of Philip
•The Hypostasis of the Archons
•On the Origin of the World
•The Exegesis on the Soul
•The Book of Thomas the Contender
The most famous of these is undoubtedly The Gospel of Thomas for reasons that we will get to in a moment. If you have some knowledge of Greek you should be able to read part of what is presented in the picture above. In the Library the titles are put at the end of each book or treatise, so we see the end of ΚΑΤΑ ΙΩΑΝΝΗΝ Η ΑΠΟΚΡΥΦΟΝ, or The Apocryphon of John (i.e. The Secret Writing of John). However, although the rest is written in Greek letters, except for a new names you will not be able to read anything else, because it is written in Coptic. All of the Nag Hammadi Library is written in this ancient language. It is, quite literally, the ancient language that is in continuity with that spoke by the people who built the pyramids in the times of the pharaohs 4600 years ago and was inscribed in the syllabary known as hieroglyphs. It was spoken as late as the 17th century and continues to be used in the worship of the Coptic Orthodox Church, even when Egyptian Copts have all moved on to speak Arabic. From the way the letters are written and the form of the language scholars can tell within about twenty-five years as to when the manuscripts were written, and they all date to the late 4th century.
We know that these texts were translated from Greek. The Greek titles suggests as much, and we have scraps of older papyrus from other places in Egypt which are written in Hellenistic Greek, and are clearly fragments of the originals. Church Fathers such as Irenaeus of Lyon and Clement of Alexandrria also quote from the Greek originals some 200 to 100 years before some Coptic copier made the Nag Hammadi codices. We are dealing, then with translations, not the originals, except when we can refer to those few fragments in Greek.
What is “Gnosticism”? A Scholarly Consensus
One way of figuring out what something is is to look in the dictionary, and the definition in the online Merriam Webster looks pretty authoritative.
If you prefer a British source, one might look in the Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford/New York, OUP, 1993), where there is indeed a lengthy entry on “Gnosticism.” It describes the common characteristics as (and I paraphrase):
• Matter vs Spirit. There is a duality, and an opposition between matter and spirit. Matter is, if not downright evil, a lesser state than the spiritual. Thus, the body is a prison from which the soul longs to escape.
• God vs. Demiurge. There is a contrast between the unknown transcendent God, who is good, and the Demiurge, who is not. The Demiurge is the creator of the world, and is usually identified the God of the Hebrew Bible. The Demiurge is ignorant, so ignorant that he is unaware of the true God.
• True God and Humanity. The human race is essentially a divine spark of heavenly light imprisoned in a material body, and is thus there is a continuity between the divine and humanity that is ignored because of being clothed in matter.
•A Great Fall accounting for the present human predicament. This is not normally the Fall as described in Genesis, but rather it is the creation of the Demiurge and consequent imprisoning of the divine spark in matter as humanity. In one Nag Hammadi text, the Genesis story of the Fall is reinterpreted as a good thing!
•Gnosis – a special knowledge – will save human beings. This is the mythology just described above. In this schema, Jesus is the bearer of this gnosis.
Before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, scholars were mainly dependent on reading the Church Fathers describing heresy: Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165 CE), Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202 CE), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 CE), Origen (c. 185 – c. 253), Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 CE), Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170 – c. 235 CE), and Epaphanius of Salamis (c. 310/320 – 403). As well, various scraps of Greek writing on papyrus were found in Egypt, and were considered as possibly gnostic. Interestingly, none of the Church Fathers or the fragments described the “heresies” as “gnostic” – there was no ancient concept of “Gnosticism”.
The first use of the term “gnosticism” only came in 1669. However, real scholarship on this only came in the middle of the 19th century. There were two approaches, the older being an examination of origins – where did Gnosticism come from – and the more recent one starting in the 1930s looking at typologies in the ancient writings.
The origins approach was pioneered by Adolf von Harnack, who in 1885 wrote that he considered Gnosticism to be an acute Hellenization of Christianity. A different school, grounded in the comparative history of religions, instead looked to the Orient for the genesis, and found it in such religions as Mandaeism (still in existence in southern Iraq) and in the ancient Vedic scriptures of Hinduism.
Hans Jonas in 1934 published a different approach that identified types or characteristics of Gnosticism, which is called the typological approach. Among the typologies he identified were: the loss and reclaiming of gnosis; the dynamism of time, meaning that time was moving towards a particular conclusion; the mythologies involving many emanations from the unseen, unknowable God, including Sophia and the Logos; the sense that humanity is alienated from the divine, and needs to be reconciled through gnosis; and the dualism already described above.
This scholarly work, then is what gave rise to the definition in the dictionary, and the description in the Oxford Companion to the Bible. However, it has been called into question by some scholars, including Prof Karen King of Harvard University.
I had the opportunity of studying with Prof King two decades ago. She is a recognised expert on the Nag Hammadi Library, and has produced translations and commentaries on several of the texts. Since I studied with her she has been appointed the Hollis Professor of Divinity, not only the oldest endowed chair at Harvard, but also in any North American University; among other things, the position has the right to pasture a cow on Harvard Yard – something her predecessor did, but I am not aware if she has done so.
In her book What is Gnosticism? (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 18, she writes
As long as defining Gnosticism was still primarily about determining the historical identity of Christianity, its purpose remained largely the same as that of heresy. Heresy appears to be a very tidy category—its purpose is to distinguish right and wrong belief and behavior, define insider outsider boundaries, and establish clear lines of power and authority. Gnosticism has often performed these same functions. It has marked the erroneous, the heretical, the schismatic, as well as all things threatening, anomalous, esoteric, and arcane.
To a great extent, although they did not acknowledge it, the scholars of the 19th and 20th century, were essentially the same kind of heresy hunters as the Church Fathers. The result is that when people in the 1960s and 1970s began to read the Nag Hammadi texts they did so using preconceived categories. This was a bit like hammering a square peg into a round hole, and damage would be done if it was allowed to happen. Prof King suggests that perhaps we just drop the category of “gnosticism” with its taint of heresy and smoothing out of differences among the treatises of the Library, and just let the texts speak for themselves, with all of their diversity and contradictions, as well as commonalities.
The Gospel of Thomas
The title The Gospel of Thomas is found at the end of the treatise in Codex II, and the whole text follows on the Apocryphon of John, as seen above. It consists of one hundred and fourteen sayings of Jesus, and there is little or no context for them. There is no obvious plan or order in the sayings. The sayings consist of parables, proverbs, eschatological sayings, and rules for the community. There is never any explanation for a parable (unlike in the canonical gospels). Most striking is what is not present in the Gospel of Thomas: there is no passion narrative, no resurrection, no healings or exorcisms, and no birth narrative. The sayings often parallel with things said by Jesus in the canonical gospels, as well as some phrases of Paul. There are also parallels outside of the canon of scripture. Because of references to it by people like Clement of Alexandria, as well as preserved Greek fragments, we know that it circulated in Greek in Egypt before 200 CE. The dating is highly contested – some scholars date it as early as the 1st century, contemporary with Paul’s letters and the gospels; others date it to the middle of the 2nd century.
Arguments over the dating revolve around how the text may have changed over time. While all the Nag Hammadi scholars agree that there is some “gnostic” influence on the final form, some suggest that in its original Greek form it may have not had them; perhaps it entered through translation, or into Greek manuscripts through additions of phrases here and there.
The canonical gospels, most scholars would say, are the result of a three or four stage process. The first stage is that in which Jesus spoke and taught, while living his life, death, and resurrection, and training disciples. The second stage is after his death and resurrection, which remained oral, as Jesus’s disciples taught and sifted through the stories and teachings. Certainly, when Paul was writing his letters, he assumed his recipients had heard these stories and preachings. Finally, at a certain point, perhaps as that first generation was dying, people began to write down the stories and sayings. The anonymous person who wrote the Gospel according to Mark appears to have been the first (the attribution of the gospels to apostles or companions is traditional, but are not claimed by any of the texts themselves). Most biblical scholars believe that the authors of Luke and Matthew had manuscripts of Mark in front of them, because of what looks like word-for word literary dependence. In some cases, the authors of Matthew and Luke correct Mark’s grammar or references, or rewrite Mark to suit their exposition of the good news.
Scholars also believe there was another source available to Matthew and Luke, but lost to the mists of time. This was simply called “Source” in German, or “Quelle”; this is known now as “Q” or the “Q source”. This included things such as the three temptations of Jesus in the desert, which Mark does not have, as well as things such as the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes.
The saying above is, with the exception of one word in Luke, identical in the two gospels. This kind of absolute similarity strongly argues for a written literary dependence. While some schemas suggest that Matthew is dependent on Luke or vice-versa, those suggestions create more problems than they solve. If Matthew is dependent on Luke, why did Matthew not incorporate the Parable of the Good Samaritan, or the Parable of the Prodigal Son? If Luke is dependent on Matthew, why did Luke break up the Sermon on the Mount and relocate some of the sayings to the Sermon on the Plain? Why are their infancy narratives so different and contradictory? The simple solution is to assume a literary dependence on the lost source we now call Q, and that the arrangements of the sayings were due to the aythors of Matthew and Luke.
Now, when goes through Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and sieve out Mark and note what is common to Matthew and Luke, one gets a collection of sayings that, like The Gospel of Thomas, lacks much context. So when The Gospel of Thomas was found, while it did not appear to be Q, it certainly seemed to be in the same genre, a Sayings Gospel.
Prologue These are the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.
Saying 1: True Meaning And he said, “Whoever discovers the meaning of these sayings won’t taste death.”
Saying 2: Seek and Find Jesus said, “Whoever seeks shouldn’t stop until they find. When they find, they’ll be disturbed. When they’re disturbed, they’ll be […] amazed, and reign over the All.”
Saying 3: Seeking Within Jesus said, “If your leaders tell you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of heaven will precede you. If they tell you, ‘It’s in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is within you and outside of you. “When you know yourselves, then you’ll be known, and you’ll realize that you’re the children of the living Father. But if you don’t know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”
Saying 4: First and Last Jesus said, “The older person won’t hesitate to ask a little seven-day-old child about the place of life, and they’ll live, because many who are first will be last, and they’ll become one.”
Saying 5: Hidden and Revealed Jesus said, “Know what’s in front of your face, and what’s hidden from you will be revealed to you, because there’s nothing hidden that won’t be revealed.”
Saying 6: Public Ritual His disciples said to him, “Do you want us to fast? And how should we pray? Should we make donations? And what food should we avoid?” Jesus said, “Don’t lie, and don’t do what you hate, because everything is revealed in the sight of heaven; for there’s nothing hidden that won’t be revealed, and nothing covered up that will stay secret.”
Saying 7: The Lion and the Human Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion that’s eaten by a human and then becomes human, but how awful for the human who’s eaten by a lion, and the lion becomes human.”
Saying 8: The Parable of the Fish He said, “The human being is like a wise fisher who cast a net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of little fish. Among them the wise fisher found a fine large fish and cast all the little fish back down into the sea, easily choosing the large fish. Anyone who has ears to hear should hear!”
Saying 9: The Parable of the Sower Jesus said, “Look, a sower went out, took a handful of seeds, and scattered them. Some fell on the roadside; the birds came and gathered them. Others fell on the rock; they didn’t take root in the soil and ears of grain didn’t rise toward heaven. Yet others fell on thorns; they choked the seeds and worms ate them. Finally, others fell on good soil; it produced fruit up toward heaven, some sixty times as much and some a hundred and twenty.”
Saying 10: Jesus and Fire (1) Jesus said, “I’ve cast fire on the world, and look, I’m watching over it until it blazes.”
Saying 11: Those Who Are Living Won’t Die (1) Jesus said, “This heaven will disappear, and the one above it will disappear too. Those who are dead aren’t alive, and those who are living won’t die. In the days when you ate what was dead, you made it alive. When you’re in the light, what will you do? On the day when you were one, you became divided. But when you become divided, what will you do?”
Saying 12: James the Just The disciples said to Jesus, “We know you’re going to leave us. Who will lead us then?” Jesus said to them, “Wherever you are, you’ll go to James the Just, for whom heaven and earth came into being.”
Saying 13: Thomas’ Confession Jesus said to his disciples, “If you were to compare me to someone, who would you say I’m like?” Simon Peter said to him, “You’re like a just angel.” Matthew said to him, “You’re like a wise philosopher.” Thomas said to him, “Teacher, I’m completely unable to say whom you’re like.” Jesus said, “I’m not your teacher. Because you’ve drunk, you’ve become intoxicated by the bubbling spring I’ve measured out.” He took him aside and told him three things. When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked, “What did Jesus say to you?” Thomas said to them, “If I tell you one of the things he said to me, you’ll pick up stones and cast them at me, and fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.”
Saying 14: Public Ministry Jesus said to them, “If you fast, you’ll bring guilt upon yourselves; and if you pray, you’ll be condemned; and if you make donations, you’ll harm your spirits. “If they welcome you when you enter any land and go around in the countryside, heal those who are sick among them and eat whatever they give you, because it’s not what goes into your mouth that will defile you. What comes out of your mouth is what will defile you.”
Saying 15: Worship Jesus said, “When you see the one who wasn’t born of a woman, fall down on your face and worship that person. That’s your Father.”
Some Final Comments from the Group about the First 15 Sayings.
I find it to be a bit like a computer generated joke – it has the form of a saying of Jesus, but does not quite get there.
I miss the context. I struggle with what the saying might mean. Perhaps that’s because these would have been discussed in a master/disciple situation, and the full interpretation would have been given orally.
Gnomic, much like some of the parables in the canonical gospels.
It reminds me of Proverbs – only these are not proverbs!
Some of this is familiar – “There’s nothing hidden that won’t be revealed”; “the kingdom is within you”; “the first shall be last”.
Struck by the faithfulness of these early Christians who were seeking the truth.
I miss the narratives of the death and resurrection.
Well, just when we thought the past two years could not get any worse, it does. The Russian Federation invades Ukraine. The capital Kyiv is under siege, and parts of southern Ukraine have fallen to separatist and Russian armed forces. Putin and his paranoid security advisors seems bent on regime change and the Ukrainian people under Zelenskyy are putting up a brave fight.
And what are we as Christians supposed to do? What is our response to aggressive war, to the armed resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces and ordinary citizens, and to our own role as people living here in Greece, as citizens of NATO nations, as Christians?
There are at least three approaches used by Christians to war.
First is the one which sees Christians endorsing aggressive war. We saw this in the 11th century with the Crusades, and it continued in the Reconquista in Span and Portugal, in the conquests of Mexico and Peru in the 15th century, and the genocidal colonisations that all the major Christian nations participated in up until the last century. While often justified as bringing the gospel and civilization to those who were conquered, they invariably ended in oppression and exploitation, if not outright extermination. Indeed, these genocidal practices often seemed rooted in a prescriptive reading of the Book of Judges. As modern Christians we know that this is deeply problematic, and since WW II wars of aggression are seen as criminal, outlawed in the the United Nations charter and other treaties.
On might ask why it is that Christians ever came to believe that violence against others was justified. Part of it was that when Constantine legalized Christianity in the early 4th centuries and convened conferences to define doctrine such as the one at Nicaea, the Christian leaders really dd not know what to say. After going from being persecuted and martyred to being wined and dined by the Emperor, they must have felt as if the kingdom of God had finally come in some way. So who was going to criticise the great Constantine, patron of the Church, for his military actions? That said, Constantine refrained from formally joining the church through baptism until his deathbed, holding that the Christian life and the lethal requirements of the office of Emperor were inconsistent.
After Constantine church leaders became inured to state violence, especially if they benefited from it. They frequently attempted to use the force of government to their own ends, such as becoming the official religion in 380, attacking pagan religions and turning their temples into churches. They felt that the violent use of force by governments was legitimate in the name of orthodoxy. In northern Europe the militaristic ways of Frankish, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon warriors were moderated by the teachings of the church, but not ended.
Another view is that of Augustine of Hippo, who in the 5th century formulated the basics of what is known as Just War Theory. This was elaborated by Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius, and remain influential today in International Law. Just War Theory combines a moral aversion to violence with the recognition that sometimes it is necessary. There are generally four conditions that need to be met.
The war must be fundamentally defensive, and the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.
All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.
there must be serious prospects of success.
the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated, such as the massacre of civilians, or a breakdown in civil society.
This is the teaching of the Church of England (Article XXXVII: It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars). I suspect that this is where many of us stand. If I had been a young man in 1939 I would have undoubtedly volunteered for military service. If I were a Ukrainian in the Ukraine now I would be thinking seriously of defending my country and its democracy.
Needless to say, what looks acceptable on paper becomes difficult in practice.
War brutalizes both soldiers and civilians, and what would be considered horrific in peacetime becomes all too acceptable in wartime. War is also so very unpredictable, as both World Wars and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria demonstrate. Political leaders and generals often overestimate their capacity to control events, and what appears to be a nice little war can metastasize into decades-long conflict.
But there is another approach.
The third Christian approach to war is perhaps the most challenging. It is the approach that is non-violent and pacifist. It is rooted in the behaviour of our Lord Jesus Christ when assailed by his enemies, who did not strike back and did not call upon an army of angels to destroy those who would kill him. It is an attitude which turns the other cheek and prays for its enemies. It is the original approach to violence, as practiced by Christians for three centuries from Jesus until Constantine. It is the practice which breaks the chain of violence. It was the practice that successfully converted up to half the Roman Empire by the time it was finally legalized (Constantine was following the crowd here, not leading it). It was used by Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu to challenge and overcome segregation and apartheid. It is the practice of small but significant denominations – usually radical Anabaptists such as Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites, but also the Quakers. There are also Anglican Pacifists (see the website for the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship). Because it is so centered in Christ it is the one that seems the most true, but it is also the one that seems most full of suffering for Christians, and so against the strong sense of self-preservation. I wish I had the courage and the faith to be a Christian pacifist, but I find myself returning to the previous approach of the Just War Theory; I fear I may not be in the right.
We begin with prayer.
It is not my job to tell you how to think and act, but rather to convey the teachings of the church, which, as always, is complex and has multiple voices and opinions. That said, I hope you do not see yourself in the first approach, but rather are challenged by the legacy of violence in our colonial history. But I imagine you are also challenged by the second and third approaches. All violence is a sign of our broken and sinful nature, and our need for redemption and transformation. We should never become comfortable with war. The good news of Jesus Christ is that in the resurrection we see the sign that the change has already come, and that God is making all things new.
In the meantime we should pray.
Pray for the families of the soldiers who are in distress that their sons and daughters are being killed.
Pray for the people of Ukraine, that they may find a way to maintain their independence and democracy.
Pray for the people of the Russian Federation, that they too may find a way restore democracy in their country, and hold their leadership accountable for waging an unnecessary war.
Pray for religious leaders in Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere, that they may witness to the importance of avoiding violence.
Pray for those who are fleeing Ukraine, and for ourselves, that our governments may welcome them.
Pray for those wars and conflicts we have forgotten: the peoples of Yemen, Ethiopia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and so many other places.
An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Twenty: Christmas Eve
George Herbert wrote a poem named Christmas and so we will close our Advent retreat with it, anticipating the late evening Christ Mass and the celebration on Christmas Day.
All after pleasures as I rid one day, My horse and I, both tir’d, body and mind, With full cry of affections, quite astray, I took up in the next inn I could find, There when I came, whom found I but my dear, My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief Of pleasures brought me to him, ready there To be all passengers most sweet relief? O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light, Wrapt in nights mantle, stole into a manger; Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right, To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger: Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have A better lodging then a rack or grave.
The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be? My God, no hymn for thee? My soul ’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds Of thoughts, and words, and deeds. The pasture is thy word: the streams, thy grace Enriching all the place. Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers Out-sing the day-light hours. Then we will chide the sun for letting night Take up his place and right: We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should Himself the candle hold. I will go searching, till I find a sun Shall stay, till we have done; A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly, As frost-nipt suns look sadly. Then we will sing, shine all our own day, And one another pay: His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine, Till ev’n his beams sing, and my music shine.
The poem is evidently in two parts. The first is a sonnet with a standard rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG, and the second is ten rhyming couplets.
The sonnet starts in the first-person, the persona confessing that he is all after pleasure. He rides his horse, but tired, arrives at an inn. Instead of finding worldly pleasures, he finds Christ, who is waiting him as he will inevitably realise that pleasure brings only grief, while he, Jesus, brings relief. That takes us to the mid-point of the sonnet. The second half plays with the fact that the traveler sought a lodging, but now he invites his Lord to lodge in him. Reflecting on his dark soul, Jesus who is the light of the world will enlighten it, just as it “stole into a manger” in the Incarnation on Christmas.
Building on the reference to Christmas, Herbert recalls the shepherd’s praise (although the Biblical witness is that the angels sang, not the shepherds!). He slides sideways by identifying his soul as a shepherd, keeping watch over “thoughts, and words, and deeds.” These “sheep” graze on the word and drink God’s grace. Then both sheep and shepherds sing. I’ve not heard shepherds sing – I assume they are as good or bad as anyone – but the idea of sheep singing is interesting, since they usually just bleat or croak. But these are Herbert’s sheep, so his thoughts, words, and deeds are better than most, I suppose.
In the northern hemisphere Christmas comes at the winter solstice, and so Herbert is aware of how dark the days can be at this time. This is perhaps why the shepherd and sheep “chide the sun” for giving way to night. The poet says he will seek a sun, who is none other than the light of the world, the Son of God.
Christmas was a somewhat different celebration in Herbert’s time. It would have been more of a religious ceremony, and the commercialism and frantic purchasing of gifts that we moderns associate with December had not yet emerged. There may have been some gift giving, although that may have been more the type that reinforced legal relations, such as landlord and tenant, and not so much about children. There would have been no Santa Claus – that tradition was still about Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and Nieuw Amsterdam, awaiting Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St Nicholas” to free it from its Dutch origins. Father Christmas as we know him had not yet appeared – that seems to have happened first in reaction to the abolition of Christmas under the Puritan Commonwealth. There was undoubtedly a great feast on Christmas day with singing, dancing, and in great houses, dramatic performances such as masques.
It is perhaps in that context, then, that we should hear the shepherd and the sheep singing, and the light of Christ shining when the sun goes down. Herbert approved of the old customs in moderation, so while he probably looked askance at public drunkenness and gross consumption of food – all after pleasures – he would have smiled upon public and family gatherings. So perhaps we should imagine this being sung at the end of a great Christmas meal, when with stomachs full and minds a little softened by wine, we turn our souls to the reason we feasted in the first place.
Thank you for joining me for part or all of these twenty days of an Advent Retreat with George Herbert. As you will have discerned by now, I am no great student of English – I have great trouble scanning lines of poetry and figuring out where the accents are. However, despite my limitations, I welcome the opportunity to read these old poems and dog deep. God bless you, and may the one who was born at Christmas brighten these dark days, and may the Holy Spirit empower you to shine as well.
An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Nineteen: Thursday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent
As we approach Christmas we should turn to praise. Here is another poem named Antiphon, by which Herbert means a chorus sung by two choirs – in this case, of “Men” and “Angels”.
Chor. Praised be the God of love, Men. Here below, Angels. And here above: Cho. Who hath dealt his mercies so, Ang. To his friend, Men. And to his foe;
Cho. That both grace and glory tend Ang. Us of old, Men. And us in th’ end. Cho. The great shepherd of the fold Ang. Us did make, Men. For us was sold.
Cho. He our foes in pieces brake; Ang. Him we touch; Men. And him we take. Cho. Wherefore since that he is such, Ang. We adore, Men. And we do crouch.
Cho. Lord, thy praises should be more. Men. We have none, Ang. And we no store. Cho. Praised be the God alone, Who hath made of two folds one.
Ann Pasternak Slater (p. 434) makes the technical note:
The form of this poem is also ingenious. The fifth line of each stanza provides the first rhyme of the next (thus, stanza 1 : ababcb; stanza 2: cdcded; stanza 3: efefgf). In the last stanza the aberrant fifth line is amalgamated with the sixth to create total harmony: ghghg. Metrically, this final line also amalgamates two expected short lines sung by Men and Angels, making of two folds one. (All the pairs of short lines scan ‘ ˘ ‘ followed by ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘ ; [The last line] combines the two, making ‘ ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘, the same metre as the majority of the Chorus’s lines.)
This was eventually put to music by Benjamin Britten, and you can find a recording of it below, but I don’t think it is his finest work.
There’s an interesting contrast between the angels and “men”. Humans are below, conscious of God’s foes, that grace and glory will come to them “in th’end”, that Christ was “sold” for them, that we adore in kneeling and take Christ in the bread of Communion, and that we are incapable of sufficient praise. Angels are above, conscious of God’s friends, know God’s grace and glory “as of old”, of God as Creator, close enough to touch God, simply adore, and do not store up praise but simply offer it at once. While the praise is of God, it comes across through God’s relations with God’s creatures – the eternal angels and the ephemeral humans. As Pasternak Slater notes, the two species combine in the merged fifth/sixth line of the last stanza.
Praise is simple and direct, and Herbert does this in this poem. As we approach Christmas may our praise be likewise.
An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Eighteen: Wednesday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent
To demonstrate that Herbert was not a true Puritan, one need only look at his poems on feast days. He wrote about Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, and, in today’s poem, Trinity Sunday. Radical Puritans held that the Church calendar was a creation of human beings, not being found in the Bible. Yes, Jesus was born, but the date is nowhere specified. Therefore, abolish Christmas. Celebrate every Sunday as a Sunday of the Resurrection, and do not get all caught up with pointless arguments about the right day for Easter, with its confusing ties to new moons and the Spring Equinox.
But that was not Herbert. He accepted the Church calendar as it was, and in theory used it to help form the piety of his congregation. Here is what he wrote on the theme of Trinity Sunday:
Lord, who hast formed me out of mud, And hast redeemed me through thy blood, And sanctified me to do good;
Purge all my sins done heretofore: For I confess my heavy score, And I will strive to sin no more.
Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me, With faith, with hope, with charity; That I may run, rise, rest with thee.
As you can see, it is a short poem of three triplets with the rhyme pattern of AAA BBB CCC, and eight syllables in each line. Each triplet, especially the first, suggests Trinitarian action on the poet, line by line. Thus, in the first stanza, creation from mud is associated with the Father, redemption with the Son, and sanctification with the Spirit. In the second, purgation is the work of the Son, confession is made to to the Father, and the effort to strive to sin no more is only possible through the Spirit. The third triplet is less easily classified, although it may be that the Spirit enriches the poet body and soul, the gifts of faith hope and love (from 1 Corinthians 13 “these things remain”) are from the Father, and the sense of “run, rise, rest” is to be with the resurrected Jesus. That said, I am not sure even I buy that analysis. Perhaps Herbert is deliberately blurring the Trinitarian action, thus pushing the reader towards seeing the unity of action.
The poem is no longer than it should be. It is a prayer whose structure repeats content we already know, and arguably its significance is in that structure.
Like yesterday’s poem, this also has a counterpart with the same name in W, which as you may recall, is an earlier manuscript of the collection that became The Temple, perhaps written in Herbert’s own hand. It follows the poem above, so there are two with the same name in W. In the end, Herbert seems to have decided against the second poem being preserved. Here it is:
Trinity Sunday (from W)
He that is one, Is none. Two reacheth thee In some degree. Nature and Grace With Glory may attain thy Face. Steel and a flint strike fire, Wit and desire Never to thee aspire, Except life catch and hold those fast. That which belief Did not confess in the first Thief His fall can tell, From Heaven, through Earth, to Hell. Let two of those alone To them that fall, Who God and Saints and Angels loose at last. He that has one, Has all.
This is a whole lot more obscure than the other poem, and I am not sure I really understand what Herbert was getting at. But let’s have a go.
Who is the “he”? The Father, perhaps? The soul of a human being? What is Herbert trying to say in stating that “He that is one / is none”? That no man is an island, perhaps, that humanity needs God, I suppose. Or is he stating some thing ontological, that God, who is one, is beyond being, and so is no thing? “Thee” must be God, but who are the two that “reachest thee”? Nature and Grace, one would suppose, but then in the next line he suggests that with “Grace” he may attain the Face of God – the beatific vision – is that not three?
Well, it goes on in this opaque state, and enters some kind of Miltonesque world with the fall of angels to Hell. I am sure that one could unravel exactly what Herbert is getting at, but the poem is not in the plain language that the poet usually uses. I suspect that, while he thought it a lovely compact statement meditating on Trinity Sunday, that concluded that it was not worthy of preservation, and so did not make it into the later final manuscript known as B and the published version of 1633.
This is the great danger of Trinitarian theology – that in the attempt to explain it, one falls into confusion, heresy, or obscurity, if not all three at once. As an orthodox Christian I am a Trinitarian, but I would happily say that while the content of salvation is in Trintarian form, it is not necessary to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity for salvation (however one conceives of salvation). While contemplation of the Holy Trinity may bring one into closer communion with the Divine, God’s grace does not depend on any person’s ability to explain the internal workings of the Divine. In salvation history we see God acting in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the Source of all Being, the Incarnate Word, and the Breath of God upon us.
An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Seventeen: Tuesday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Struck by yesterday’s poem The Agony I raised the question about what kind of churchmanship Herbert belonged to. Following the Restoration his The Country Parson was published, and promptly became a manual for Church of England clergy right down to this day. The biography by Isaak Walton was also published in 1670, and he was described as the model of the perfect parish priest in the Restoration Church of England.
The English Civil Wars, which Herbert missed by dying at a young age, was partly about the relationship of Parliament and King, but also very much about the nature of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. The fundamental question was whether the church was sufficiently reformed, or had it become too reformed, dispensing with Christian practices that were good and holy but perceived by radicals as being “Popish”. James VI & I sought to restore the historic episcopate on the Church of Scotland. After he suceeded Elizabeth I as King of England he met with the leadership of the English Puritans in the Hampton Court Conference of 1604. Largely remembered for inaugurated the new translation known as the King James Version, the King considered a number of requests from the leaders, including: the abolition in baptism of the making of the sign of the cross on the forehead of the baptised; the suppressing of the service of confirmation; forbidding the pious custom of bowing at the name of Jesus; the requirement of the surplice; the use of a ring in marriage. He rejected all of these other requests. The Puritans were generally suspicious of the episcopacy, and doubted the usefulness of the ecclesiastical calendar. When the Puritans came to control the country under the Commonwealth, the Book of Common Prayer was forbidden, Christmas was abolished, and clergy did not wear the white surplices. All of this came back in 1660 when Charles II returned to ondon.
But was Herbert quite what the Restoration sought to make him? In her 1988 article “George Herbert and Puritan Piety” (The Journal of Religion , Apr., 1988, Vol. 68, No. 2, pp. 226-241) Jeanne Clayton Hunter argues that the poet was more deeply influenced by Puritan theology than is generally acknowledged, and describes him essentially as a Calvinist. With that in mind, then, let us turn to today’s poem.
The H. Communion
Not in rich furniture, or fine array, Nor in a wedge of gold, Thou, who from me wast sold, To me dost now thyself convey; For so thou should’st without me still have been, Leaving within me sin:
But by the way of nourishment and strength, Thou creep’st into my breast; Making thy way my rest, And thy small quantities my length; Which spread their forces into every part, Meeting sin force and art.
Yet can these not get over to my soul, Leaping the wall that parts Our souls and fleshly hearts; But as th’ outworks, they may control My rebel-flesh, and carrying thy name, Affright both sin and shame.
Only thy grace, which with these elements comes, Knoweth the ready way, And hath the privy key, Op’ning the soul’s most subtle rooms: While those to spirits refin’d, at door attend Despatches from their friend.
Give me my captive soul, or take My body also thither. Another lift like this will make Them both to be together.
Before that sin turn’d flesh to stone, And all our lump to heaven; A fervent sigh might well have blown Our innocent earth to heaven.
For sure when Adam did not know To sin, or sin to another; He might to heav’n from Paradise go, As from one room t’ another.
Thou hast restor’d us to this ease By this thy heav’nly blood, Which I can go to, when I please, And leave th’ earth to their food.
The poem is in two parts. The first part is four stanzas of ABBACC rhyme scheme, the second is four stanzas of ABAB. In the first stanza Herbert notes that God comes to him in humble form, not in gold or fine array, which would leave him in a state of sin. The second stanza makes clear that he comes “by the way of nourishment and strength” and in “small quantities” – the small amounts of bread and wine consumed at Holy Communion. Grace somehow overcomes the divide of flesh and soul. In the second half of the poem he begs God to unite soul and body so that he might be like Adam who can pass from heaven to Earth as easily as passing from one room to another, and then asserts this is accomplished in the blood of Holy Communion.
At the very least this is an argument for receptionism, which was the doctrine that the bread and the wine of communion become the body and blood of Christ in the receiving. As the words of administration in use in the BCP (1559) while Herbert was alive stated: “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving . . . Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.” While Puritans of a strong Calvinistic bent may have wished to eliminate any sense that the bread and wine were anything other than mere bread and wine, and symbols of a spiritual feeding, Herbert’s language seems to go beyond this.
Thus, while he is not what would later be called an Anglo-Catholic, and certainly shows no interest in the trend incarnated in Archbishop Laud, he is not quite a Calvinist radical. In The Country Parson he writes that in the church building
all the books appointed by Authority be there, and those not torn, or fouled, but whole and clean, and well bound; and that there be a fitting, and sightly Communion Cloth of fine linen, with an handsome, and seemly Carpet of good and costly Stuff, or Cloth, and all kept sweet and clean, in a strong and decent chest, with a Chalice, and Cover, and a Stoop, or Flagon (Chapter XIII)
Herbert was happy to use the BCP, and clearly was fine with the Communion Table being covered with what is now known to us as a “Laudian frontal” – a large, ornamented piece of cloth that hangs over the four sides of the table. Fine linen is then put on top. He advocates that at Baptism the priest is “himself in white” i.e. wearing a surplice (Chapter XXII), and when it comes to Communion he requires that all admitted to the sacrament be able to distinguish between “the Sacramental from common bread”(Ibid). He is also “a Lover of old Customs, if they be good, and harmless” (Chapter XXXV). None of this marks him out as a fervent Puritan. Nor is he a Laudian or a proto-Anglo-Catholic. As Johm M. Adrian states in his article “George Herbert, parish ‘dexterity’, and the local modification of Laudianism”,
Herbert shares with the Laudians a belief in the dignity of the clerical office, a wariness of subversive elements within the Church, and an interest in homogeneity within the parish. But unlike the Laudians (and more like his predecessors), Herbert stresses the adaptive role of the parson and makes him – not the bishop or royal chaplain – the most effective arbiter of religious experience. He is, Herbert suggests, best suited to gauge the parish temper and circumstances and to order worship accordingly. And indeed, the parson may even choose to put up with some nonconformity (for instance, with regard to kneeling) in order to better execute the spirit of the canon and avoid alienating elements of his flock.
Herbert, then, is himself – an early 17th century parson, whose piety absorbed Puritan influences and High Church values, but synthesised them into something unique. It became a model in a later time, but that model was applied with a certain number of assumptions which Herbert himself may not have shared.
Interestingly, Herbert wrote another entirely different poem entitled The Holy Communion which was not included in The Temple, but can be found in the manuscript known as W. It is a polemical poem, and for that reason Herbert may have judged it to be not as good as what he wanted in his final work. Here it is:
The H. Communion (as found in W)
O gracious Lord, how shall I know Whether in these gifts thou be so As thou art everywhere; Or rather so, as thou alone Tak’st all the Lodging, leaving none For thy poor creature there?
First I am sure, whether bread stay Or whether Bread do fly away Concerneth bread, not me. But that both thou and all thy train Be there, to thy truth, and my gain, Concerneth me and Thee.
And if in coming to thy foes Thou dost come first to them, that shows The haste of thy good will. Or if that thou two stations makest In Bread and me, the way thou takest Is mores but for me still.
Then of this also I am sure That thou didst all those pains endure To’ abolish Sin, not Wheat. Creatures are good, and have their place; Sin only, which did all deface, Thou drivest from his seat.
I could believe an Impanation At the rate of an Incarnation, If thou hadst died for Bread. But that which made my soul to die, My flesh, and fleshly villainy, That also made thee dead.
That flesh is there, mine eyes deny: And what should flesh but flesh descry, The noblest sense of five? If glorious bodies pass the sight, Shall they be food and strength and might Even there, where they deceive?
Into my soul this cannot pass; Flesh (though exalted) keeps his grass And cannot turn to soul. Bodies and Minds are different Spheres, Nor can they change their bounds and meres, But keep a constant Pole.
Ann Pasternak Slater does not offer any notes to the poems in W not included in The Temple. However, it is simple enough to understand. It considers the Lutheran position (Christ is present everywhere) and the Roman Catholic position that the substance of bread and wine is replaced by those of the body and blood of Jesus, leaving only the accidents of the bread and wine. After the first stanza the rest are a diatribe against transubstantiation. It seems to stop suddenly, and the poem has an unfinished, unresolved quality. The rhyme scheme of AABCCB is fine as it is, but the insistent iambic quality and the simplicity of the rhymes leaves something to be desired. One can see why Herbert left it behind.
An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Sixteen: Monday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Enough with difficult Greek poems, today we return to the sequence near the beginning of The Temple. As with the previous four poems, it deals with the Passion of Christ. For me it raises an important question about Herbert – to what extent did he belong to the High Church party of his day, and how deeply was he influenced by the Puritans?
Philosophers have measur’d mountains, Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings, Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains: But there are two vast, spacious things, The which to measure it doth more behove: Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
Who would know Sin, let him repair Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair, His skin, his garments bloody be. Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike Did set again abroach; then let him say If ever he did taste the like. Love is that liquor sweet and most divine, Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.
A few comments on potentially difficult words.
By “philosophers” Herbert undoubtedly refers not only to the folks who are still studied in university today – the Pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Seneca, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, and his contemporary Francis Bacon – but people whom we would now call scientists, who studied mountains and stars, as well as springs (hydrology).
“Behove” is a variant of “behoove”, which simply means “it is necessary that”.
“Vice” can also be read as “vise”, an instrument which by pressure holds things in place.
“Assay” means to analyze something, such as a metal, to determine its content.
“Abroach” is an adverb or an adjective which means “breached” as in opening up a cask and letting a fluid drain out.
The rhyme scheme is ABABCC etc. There are ten syllables in each line, except the middle one, line 3, which only has eight. This puts a special emphasis upon that line, and redirects the stanza. The first stanza starts off generally talking about the things that claim attention from public intellectuals, but Herbert redirects the focus to Sin and Love. The second verse deals with Sin by depicting Christ as prayer on the Mount of Olives:
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” [[Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]] When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Luke 22.39-46
Herbert is obviously riffing on this passage from scripture. Neither Matthew or Mark (or John) have any reference to sweating blood, but interestingly, some early manuscripts of Luke are also missing verse 43-44. Although the addition is of great antiquity, modern textual critics believe that it was no part of the original text of the gospel, so they put it in double brackets (as do many translations). Herbert’s Bible (whether Geneva, Bishop’s, or King James/Authorised) was based on a Greek text that dated from long after when the addition was made, and he would not have known their absences in the older manuscripts (Sinaiticus, now in the British Library, and Vaticanus, in the Vatican, and a host of papyrus manuscripts and ancient witnesses).
The cause of the blood appearing is not indicated in the (added) Biblical passage. Herbert takes it as the effect of sin that Christ is taking on, and on his body it is like a wine press or a torturous vise. He did not have a scientific understanding of the circulatory or nervous systems, but he imagines pain is entering into his body through the veins, resulting in the bloody sweat.
The third stanza deals with Love, and regards the death of Jesus on the cross as a divine example of that “vast, spacious thing.” After his death Jesus is pierced by a soldier, and blood and water flows out (John 19.31-37); this has traditionally been interpreted eucharistically, so Herbert is not being novel here. He refers to it as “juice” and the word “abroach” suggests the body of Jesus is like a wine cask. Herbert describes it as blood for God but wine for him, which underlines the connection to Holy Communion.
After the first-person poems of The Thanksgiving and The Reprisal which is in an impersonal voice addressed to the impersonal third person “who”/”he”/”him”. Only in the last line does the first-person return. This is undoubtedly the most striking thing about the poem – it is like listening to someone speak dispassionately about some important matter, and then suddenly realising just how important it is to the speaker, and why.
Does Herbert here have a doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic wine? If he does, he does not specify the nature of the presence. He would not have endorsed transubstantiation, but nor does he seem to be a Calvinist, suggesting that the wine is merely symbolic of Christ’s passion. Scholars argue about the extent to which Herbert tended towards Puritanism or the High Church party. Certainly, following the Restoration in 1660, he was ret-conned into being a proto-Laudian, but in fact he payed little attention to the hierarchy of the church in The Country Parson. He had little time for the Independents, whom he considered schismatics, but the fact was that at the time most Puritans were in the Church of England, and were simply trying to change it. He might be a Zwinglian, like the late Thomas Cranmer, suggesting that it is in the reception of the wine that it becomes the blood of Christ.
Perhaps he follows in the tradition of the short poem that is anonymous, but has been attributed to Elizabeth I and John Donne:
He was the Word that spake it, he took the bread and brake it, and what that Word did make it, I do believe and take it.
Whatever his precise understanding, it appears for Herbert that the Love of God is shown in the sacrifice once offered by Christ, but it is also conveyed repeatedly in the wine (and the bread) of Holy Communion. This question about the real presence leads me to want to look at The H. Communion. And so we shall, tomorrow.
An Advent Retreat with George Herbert Day Fifteen: Saturday after the Third Sunday of Advent
And now for something completely different: a poem, not from The Temple but from one of the other published works by George Herbert – in Greek!
A confession: I am no Classics scholar, even though I studied Koiné Greek (a.k.a. New Testament Greek) during my Master of Divinity in 1985-88, and I attempted Latin for two years in high school. All of this qualifies me to know how little I actually understand. Give me a copy of Bauer – Gingrich – Danker (a New Testament concordance) and a grammar handbook and I might be able to produce a passable translation and parse the verbs; otherwise, I am usually guessing. Classical Greek is somewhat impenetrable to me, because while I will recognise words, the meanings will have changed, and the word endings of Attic and other dialects are different, too. The Greek of the Iliad and the Odyssey is even more difficult that Aristotle, Plato, or Euripides, as it is some 450 years older, and is in the Ionic and other dialects. Since moving to Greece three years ago I have been studying Standard Modern Greek – the spoken language of Greeks in Greece and in the Diaspora – for the past three years, and I can speak and read it like a small child. I can sit down with a poem in Greek and make sense of it and the technique of the poet (especially if there is an English translation opposite it). Thus, I can claim that I have read Konstantinos Kavafis (Constantine Cavafy) in the original – but he was writing in Modern Greek only 120 years ago. Likewise, I find I can read the current poets collected in Austerity Measures:The New Greek Poetry edited by Karen Van Dyck (London UK: Penguin Books, 2016).
Someone who is a Classics scholar of some standing is the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the Rt Hon Boris Johnson. He read Ancient Greek and Latin while at Oxford, for which he received an Upper Second (approximately a B+ or an A- in North American university grading). Apparently he can recite the first one-hundred lines of the Iliad, and you can find a video of it here. It’s a pretty good party trick. He uses Erasmian pronunciation, which no Greek living or dead ever used, but it is pretty common across Europe and in the English-speaking world. Although I was trained in the Erasmian pronunciation, too, when I studied New Testament Greek, I have adopted that used by Modern Standard Greek, and I understand that it is increasingly being taught that way in universities in the USA. Modern Greek pronunciation has evolved from the language as spoken by Homer and Pericles, especially since it has moved from being a tonal language to an accented one, but it is still closer to the original than what Boris Johnson speaks.
George Herbert knew Classical Greek and Ancient Latin even better than the Prime Minister. His job required it – before ordination he was the Public Orator of Cambridge University between 1619-1627, and he was required to deliver long speeches in Latin (and perhaps Greek) during graduation ceremonies and on other great occasions. He also wrote poetry in Latin and Greek, almost as much as he did in English. Arguably, much of his skill in writing English was derived from studying the works of the ancient poets, although he managed to avoid the Latinate English of John Milton in Paradise Lost. That said, the only people who can profitably read and appreciate his poetry in Greek and Latin are Classics scholars, and there are fewer of them than there used to be. In Herbert’s day to be educated was to be able to read in Latin, and ideally Greek, as well. Today, not so much.
George Herbert idolized his mother. He was not alone – so did John Donne. In 1560 (or 1558, or 1565 – sources vary) she was born Magdalen Newport, the daughter of a Shropshire gentleman who was knighted in the reign of Elizabeth I for military service in Scotland. She married well, being yoked to Richard Herbert, Lord of Cherbury in 1681, and over the next ten years gave birth to ten children, George being the seventh. Richard Herbert died in 1596, and as the eldest son was but thirteen, she managed the family estate for the next thirteen years. Magdalen Herbert remarried in 1609 to a man only in his twenties, Sir John Danvers, when she was at least in her late forties. They remained married until her death in 1627. John Donne had met Lady Danvers when she was still the widow Herbert, and Frances Ward argued in 2011 that she was a great influence on the young man, starting when they met in 1596. Although the relationship appears to have been platonic, it was nevertheless passionate, and Donne wrote love poems dedicated to her. Later he wrote his religious sequence poem La Corona and dedicated those to her. It is striking that this woman was not only the mother of one of the great poets, but also the intimate friend of another.
Shortly after her death Donne and George Herbert published a book memorializing Lady Danvers: Memoriae Matris Sacrum, or, in English, “To the Memory of my Mother: A Consecrated Gift”). It included a sermon by Donne in English, and Herbert wrote fourteen Latin poems and five Greek ones. The best edition of these poems was published by the George Herbert Journal, Volume 33 (Fall 2009/Spring 2010), but also as a separate book in 2012. It is “A Critical Text, Translation, and Commentary Edited by Catherine Freis, Richard Freis, and Greg Miller” (henceforth “FFM “). They reproduce the poem three ways: first, in the original language, then in a polished English version, and then, in their analysis, as a construal, i.e. a close translation from the Greek into the English that makes no attempt at being poetic or reproducing the rhythms or the metre original. The book is a marvel, and I suggest that anybody who is a serious Herbert nerd needs to get it. It would be interesting to have them turn their attention to Herbert’s English poetry and see what they find of his skill in Ancient Greek and Latin.
The poems do not have titles, but are simply numbered. Here is one in Greek (please note that I have not figured out how to make my computer type in Classical Greek, so I do not have all the accents and breathing marks correct):
Poem 18 (“White-Topped Waves of the Thames”)
Κύματ’ επαφριώντα Θαμήσεος, αίκε σελήνης Φωτος απαυραμένης όγκου εφείσθε πλέον, Νύν θέμις oρφναίv μεγάλης επί γείτονος αίση Ουλυμπόνδε βιβάν ύμμιν ανισταμένοις. Αλλά μενείτ’, ου γαρ τάραχος ποτί μητέρα βαίνη, Καί πρέπον ώδε παρά δακρυόεσσι ρέειν. (FFM p. 50)
Construal (1) White-flecked waves of the Thames, if, since the moon (2) Has been robbed of [her] light you should desire more of [her] majesty, (3) In this case it would be right onto the night-black domain of [your] great neighbor, (4) As you rise over your banks to climb Olympus-wards. (5) But stay, for disorder shall not go near my mother, (6) And it is fitting to flow like this by those who weep. (FFM p. 165)
Polished Translation If, white-topped waves of the Thames, you should claim a greater share Of the moon’s high station for yourself, her light already stolen, This one time it is right for you, topping the banks into the night-black Share of your great neighbor, to climb towards Olympus. But stop, for chaos shall not approach my mother, And it is fitting to flow so excessively alongside those who weep. (FFM p. 51)
And here is part of the analysis by Freis, Freis, and Miller (FFM p. 165):
The poem imagines a storm physically manifesting the failure of the orders, categories, and hierarchies of the natural order to remain and render the world in some sense comprehensible, stable, and meaningful. The poem is structured in elegiac couplets: the first describes the scene; the second, introduced by Νύν (“in this case”), evaluates that scene and draws a conclusion; and the third, introduced by Αλλά (“but”), qualifies the evaluation. Homeric usage and vocabulary are so prominent in this poem that Herbert may have in mind Homer’s descriptions of rivers seething with foam, including the Scamander which overflows its banks and tries to drown Achilles (Iliad 5.599, 18.403, 21. 235). In addition to the description of white-capped rivers found in Homer, there are other Homeric spellings and uses: oρφναίv, Ουλυμπόνδε, ύμμιν, δακρυόεσσι, and ρέειν. Further there are two uses of Homeric syntax. The first is in line 2. The word εφείσθε (“you should aim at, long for, desire”) is aorist optative middle in a future less vivid conditional, introduced by aike. Smyth notes that this syntax is “exclusively Homeric” (2334). In line 5, the verb βαίνη (“shall not go”) is a Homeric anticipatory subjunctive (Smyth 1810).
They also identify the metre as an elegaic couplet which “was usually the first metrical Latin form that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century school boys learned and imitated, writing hosts of elegiac verses throughout their school and college careers” (FFM 184-185).
What strikes me me as someone who has previously only read Herbert’s English poems, is the absence of God. Instead, Herbert is very much acting like an Ancient Greek, addressing the River Thames as if it is some river deity, like Scamander, the river near Troy, who is both a river and a god. It is a poem that a non-Christian could have written.
This undoubtedly speaks to aspects of Herbert that are usually opaque to us if we know him only from his English poems and The Country Parson. Yes, he was very devout, but he undoubtedly idealized the role of a priest and the capacity of his charge to be formed into a truly devout community. One wonders if he might have become more moderate had he lived past the age of forty, to see the rise and fall of Puritanism and the lives lost in the English Civil War, to see his step-father become one of the people sentencing the king to death, as well the abolition of the episcopacy and the suppression of the Book of Common Prayer. What the Latin and Greek poetry demonstrate is that he was able to suspend his Christian perspective, if only in the midst of grief. He might have done so for other reasons, had he lived.
That’s enough for today. Tomorrow is a Sunday, so I won’t post anything on Herbert, but I will return on Monday with another of his English poems, as we count down to Christmas.
An Advent Retreat with George Herbert Day Fourteen: Friday after the Third Sunday of Advent
My apologies for not getting this out yesterday! Thursday was a busy day, and by the time I turned my mind to completing this post, I was beyond exhausted. Perhaps this is a reminder that, in any retreat, accumulated tiredness tends to appear. I know that when I’ve been at some retreat centre or monastery/convent I invariably find myself sleeping more than usual – and this is okay!
So, on to today’s poem. In printed editions of The Temple it follows after yesterday’s The Thanksging.
I have consider’d it, and find There is no dealing with thy mighty passion: For though I die for thee, I am behind; My sins deserve the condemnation.
O make me innocent, that I May give a disentangled state and free: And yet thy wounds still my attempts defy, For by thy death I die for thee.
Ah! was it not enough that thou By thy eternal glory didst outgo me? Couldst though not grief’s sad conquests me allow, But in all vict’ries overthrow me?
Yet by confession will I come Into the conquest. Though I can do nought Against thee, in these I will overcome The man, who once against thee fought.
The text of The Temple is based on two manuscripts and the first printed edition. The first manuscript, known as W contains both English and Latin poems, and some or all of it may be in Herbert’s own hand. It has only 69 of the 164 poems in the final version of the collection, and it is manifestly an earlier version, which some date to 1618. The second manuscript is known as B, and it appears to be a fair copy of the collection which Herbert bequeathed to Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding. Thus, it dates from no later than 1633. The printed edition of 1633 was set up from B, and where it differs from the manuscript it does so to tidy up the usual errors or omissions. For more information see Ann Pasternak Slater’s “Textual Note” on pp. lvi-lviii of The Complete English Works.
I say all of this to note that in W this poem has the name The Second Thanks-giving, and likewise follows of The Thanksgiving. So what is the meaning of the title The Reprisal? Why might Herbert have changed it?
The Oxford English Dictionary presents the uses of reprisal as a noun as the following:
I. Senses relating to retaliation. 1. a. The action, practice, or right of seizing by force foreign nationals or their goods, in retaliation for loss or injury caused by them or by their compatriots. Now historical. b. An act or instance of seizing the subjects or property of a hostile nation in retaliation for loss or injury. Formerly also with †of. Now historical. 2. a. An act or instance of retaliation for any (alleged) loss or injury; (International Law) a measure, such as a boycott or embargo, taken by one state against another in retaliation for allegedly illegal or unjustified conduct. b. The action or practice of retaliating for any loss or injury; revenge. II. Senses relating to taking, taking back, or returning more generally. 3.a. The taking of something as a prize or reward; an instance of this. Obsolete. rare . . . III. Senses relating to repetition or recurrence; 8. A separate occasion of doing something.
A reader of the past century or two might think that the main sense of the title is “reprise” as if Herbert is doing the poem over again. However, that third sense of the word from the OED dates only to well over a century after his lifetime. The older sense, as a seizing of goods or persons in retaliation for some wrong, was the current one in his day. So Herbert’s new title is suggestive that a wounded party seizes something from the offender. This sense, I think, transforms the meaning of the poem. Who is doing the reprisal? I suggest that it is God, not the poet or the persona speaking in the poem.
The persona in The Thanksgiving worries about how best to give thanks, to honour the sacrifice offered by Jesus upon the cross. He prattles away, noting that in anything he might do – grief, blood, “scourged, flouted, boxed, sold” – God goes before him (“preventest me”). He contemplates ignoring the Passion and just focusing on the glory of God. He treats his difficulty of responding as a trial of strength, and “Surely I will revenge me on thy love.” He then makes great claims about what he will do, the boastful quality which is evident, and finally will turn the Ars Amatoria (Ovid’s first century work on the “Art of Love”) into a sacred discipline. But at the end, despite seeking victory, he knows he cannot deal with the Passion.
The Reprisal picks up where he left off. The only way the poet can have any sort of victory is to acknowledge that Christ’s victory on the cross is his as well; that the ways in which Christ condemns his sins and overthrows his presumption is the only triumph to be allowed him. God seizes the body and soul of the believer who confesses – both sin and faith – in response to the injury of sin and presumptuous pride.
What Herbert is tapping into here is an understanding of what Emmanuel Levinas in his book Totality and Infinity (1962) described as Infinity – that which transcends us. We can have an idea that there is something other than ourselves, but we will never really know it. Thus, in ethical terms, we have an infinite responsibility to the other person. This is a kind of height. Through language and various types of ethical systems we seek to diminish this responsibility, to make it rational, and avoid having to always feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, and welcome the stranger. But we know that these justifications never suffice; once we feel secure in them, we know we have left the ethical realm for self-satisfaction.
Levinas argued that in the modern era one knows God as a deflection to that inherent responsibility. As an observant Orthodox Jew he used the Talmud as a means of working out how to act ethically in daily life, and he would direct Christians and Muslims to use their scriptures and liturgies in the same way. Ethical systems had their place, but they could never be the last word of a subject. The transcendence of the divine, found in the other person, goes before the human being, and calls to each person before they even know they are called.
Today we wrestle with what the ethical. We know that there is climate change, and we must act, but we hesitate because of our own addiction to carbon based fuels and the comforts they give us. We offer arguments fro the basis of economics, or fairness in cost among the nations, and slide towards calamity. We know that poor people in Oceania, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and India/Bangladesh will suffer disproportionately, but we seem to be okay with that. I suspect that my children and their descendants (if there be any – no grandchildren yet) will be fine, given the privilege they have inherited as well educated, “First-World” citizens living in democracies. I can become very complacent.
So God must occupy me, seize me as a reprisal, and overwhelm that which struggles against the divine call to me.