George Herbert’s “To Saints and Angels”

Through Lent With George Herbert
Saturday after the Third Sunday of Lent

Coltrane

The images of the dancing saints are all from the icon in the rotunda of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. It is made up of ninety traditional and un-traditional holy people. A full list is here. George Herbert is not there, but Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare are. Oh, and so is John Coltrane.  

To All Angels and Saints

Oh glorious spirits, who after all your bands
See the smooth face of God, without a frown
Or strict commands;
Where ev’ry one is king, and hath his crown,
If not upon his head, yet in his hands:

Not out of envy or maliciousness
Do I forbear to crave your special aid:
I would address
My vows to thee most gladly, blessed Maid,
And Mother of my God, in my distress:

Thou art the holy mine, whence came the gold,
The great restorative for all decay
In young and old;
Thou art the cabinet where the jewel lay:
Chiefly to thee would I my soul unfold.

But now, alas, I dare not; for our King,
Whom we do all jointly adore and praise,
Bids no such thing:
And where his pleasure no injunction lays,
(‘Tis your own case) ye never move a wing.

All worship is prerogative, and a flower
Of his rich crown, from whom lies no appeal
At the last hour:
Therefore we dare not from his garland steal,
To make a posy of inferior power.

Although then others court you, if ye know
What’s done on earth, we shall not fare the worse,
Who do not so;
Since we are ever ready to disburse,
If any one our Master’s hand can show.

Herbert was raised in the first peaceful generation of the Church of England after the tumultuous years of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. Henry VIII, in order to get an annulment of his marriage with Catharine of Aragon, broke with the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, setting himself up as Supreme Head of the Church. While some aspects of the Reformation on the Continent were implemented, on the whole the English Church looked like the Church of the Pope – still using the Latin mass, the clergu remained unmarried, and communion was still only given to the people in the form of consecrated bread, not wine.  When he died in 1547 the advisors of his son, the boy-king Edward VI, initiated a broad reform of the Church of England – the Book of Common Prayer providing services in English came out in 1549 and then a revision in 1552; clergy, while still in the orders of bishops, priests, and deacons, were allowed to marry; and in the new communion both the consecrated bread and wine were given to the people. The Forty-Two Articles of 1553, among other things, rejected transubstantiation, purgatory, and the invocation of saints.

Following Edward VI’s death in 1553 his older half-sister succeeded to the throne, and being the faithful daughter of the very Catholic, very Spanish Catherine of ragon, she instituted a return to Rome. She married her cousin once removed, Philip II of Spain, and during her life they were to be considered co-rulers, although Philip spent much time in the lands in Europe to which he was heir. They were unable to produce an heir for England, and she died after just five years, in 1558. Henry’s second child, Elizabeth I, came to the throne, and reestablished the protestant reforms that took place under her brother, with a few minor changes.

DancingSaints

You would think that in her long reign this might have solidified things and the Church of England might have settled down, but a movement of English Protestants that came to be known as the Puritans arose, who felt that the work of Reformation was unfinished. They wanted to fashion the church more along Calvinistic lines, abolishing the episcopate, getting rid of the Book of Common Prayer, getting rid of the ecclesiastical calendar (including abolishing Christmas), denying the real presence of Christ in the Communion service, and not using the sign of the cross in baptism. Elizabeth sought to keep a middle way between those who wished the traditions of the medieval church and those who wanted a radical change. Having no heir, she was succeeded by her cousin twice removed, James VI of Scotland, who then became James I of England as well. The Church of Scotland was reformed along Calvinist lines, and the new king had no particular love for the Scots ministers. While leaving his northern realm to its Presbyterian ways, he confounded the Puritans of England by reaffirming the ecclesiastical policy of England. This continued under his son Charles I, although soon after Herbert’s death in 1633 Charles, with his new Archbishop of Catherbury, William Laud, was attempting to implement church policies in Scotland and England. These would lead to revolt, civil war, and the execution of the king and the establishment by Parliament of the Commonwealth. Herbert lived and died, then, in a moment of apparent quiet before the storms of religious war erupted.

bbd1bb980d71efa5818ce607c254853b--martha-graham-all-saints-day

This is the context in which he composed the poem above. It is an eloquent argument against the invocation of saints. Prayers had been made to saints for  over a thousand years, on the basis that if one asks living people on earth to pray for oneself and others, that one might also ask the saints and angels in heaven to do the same. Unfortunately, this became theologically complex. Some people spent more time praying to the saints than to God. The Iconoclastic controversy of the 8th Century in Eastern Orthodoxy highlighted the problem of distinguishing between the reverencing of holy people through images and idolatry. In the late medieval Latin Catholic Church it was thought that the prayers of the saints were useful in shortening the time of the somewhat-less-than-holy-but-still-redeemed souls in purgatory. This became associated with pilgrimages and the saying of masses in memory of the dead, and their substitution by payment of money to the Church. All of this was problematic and heretical for the reformed churches in the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican churches.

There have been attempts by scholars to use this poem to categorize Herbert as a near-Catholic restrained by Puritan ideals, but this is a misreading. Through his time in Cambridge he would have known Puritans directly, in person (many of the settlers in Plymouth and Boston were graduates of that university), and through his reading he would have known the attitudes of the Roman Catholic Church. He was neither Catholic or Puritan, but something which combined elements of both – Anglican. He appreciated the material qualities of church buildings, such as stained glass and church monuments, as well as vestments and music. He was persuaded, however, of many problems in the Roman Church, including its devotion to Mary crossing a line into worship. He reveres the saints and the Mother of God, and addresses them in this poem. However, while he acknowledges that others do invoke the saints, he does not. He understands the motivation as to why some do so, but he does not go there himself.

The point about prayer, as I have said before, is not that it changes God’s mind, but that it changes ours. My own belief is that prayer is properly focused on God. Talking to the saints is not improper, whether they are alive or have transcended life, but we misunderstand such communication if we think that such communication can influence events. Fundamentally worship is about God, and while the saints may assist us in that worship and join with us, they are creatures and not the Creator. In Lent, as we travel with Jesus from ashes to Easter, may we keep our eyes on the one who created that with which we see.

 

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
This entry was posted in Lent, Poetry and Novels, Prayer and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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