Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door: George Herbert’s “Sunday”

Through Lent With George Herbert
The Fourth Sunday of Lent: Mothering Sunday

Normally I post my sermon on Sundays here, but I am not preaching this week – Julia Bradshaw, our postulant for the diaconate here at St. Thomas, Kefalas, is speaking this Mothering Sunday. So in lieu of that, here are some reflections on Herbert’s poem on Sunday.

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Sunday

O day most calm, most bright
The fruit of this, the next world’s bud,
Th’endorsement of supreme delight,
Writ by a friend, and with his blood;
The couch of time; care’s balm and bay:
The week were dark, but for thy light:
Thy torch doth show the way.

The other days and thou
Make up one man; whose face thou art,
Knocking at heaven with thy brow:
The worky-days are the back-part;
The burden of the week lies there,
Making the whole to stoop and bow,
Till thy release appear.

Man had straight forward gone
To endless death: but thou dost pull
And turn us round to look on one,
Whom, if we were not very dull,
We could not choose to look on still;
Since there is no place so alone,
The which he doth not fill.

Sundays the pillars are,
On which heav’n’s palace arched lies:
The other days fill up the spare
And hollow room with vanities.
They are the fruitful beds and borders
In God’s rich garden: that is bare,
Which parts their ranks and orders.

The Sundays of man’s life,
Threaded together on time’s string,
Make bracelets to adorn the wife
Of the eternal glorious King.
On Sunday heaven’s gate stands ope;
Blessings are plentiful and rife,
More plentiful than hope.

This day my Saviour rose,
And did enclose this light for his:
That, as each beast his manger knows,
Man might not of his fodder miss.
Christ hath took in this piece of ground,
And made a garden there for those
Who want herbs for their wound.

The rest of our Creation
Our great Redeemer did remove
With the same shake, which at his passion
Did th’earth and all things with it move.
As Samson bore the doors away,
Christ’s hands, though nail’d, wrought our salvation,
And did unhinge that day.

The brightness of that day
We sullied by our foul offence:
Wherefore that robe we cast away,
Having a new at his expense,
Whose drops of blood paid the full price,
That was requir’d to make us gay,
And fit for Paradise.

Thou art a day of mirth:
And where the weekdays trail on ground,
Thy flight is higher, as thy birth.
O let me take thee at the bound,
Leaping with thee from sev’n to sev’n,
Till that we both, being toss’d from earth,
Fly hand in hand to heav’n!

This is known to be a poem that was actually sung by Herbert. His biographer, Isaac Walton (of The Compleat Angler fame) wrote:

The Sunday before his death, he [George Herbert] rose suddenly from his bed or couch, called for use of his instruments, took it into his hand . . . And having tuned it, he played and sung: “The Sundays of man’s life . . .”

We do not know the tune, but the meter is 6.8.8.8.8.8.6 which is quite unusual – I do not know any melody that fits it. Perhaps more relevant is the fact that the nine stanzas each have seven lines, reflecting the seven days of the week.

Herbert writes of an idealized Sunday, perhaps  a reflection of his experience in Cambridge and Bemerton. Unlike today, in those days people did genuinely cease work on Sundays – no lectures in the university, no tending to the fields in the country. Except for what was absolutely necessary, such as milking cows and feeding the chickens, people would have spent Sundays in church and at home. The shops were closed and no business as such would have been transacted. Herbert finds it to be calm and bright, a fruit of the coming world of the kingdom of God, a time of healing, a day of mirth. It is the day when we stop our plunge towards death and look on Jesus, whom we ignored throughout the week although he fills all places and time. It is the day of resurrection, an earthquake and an opening door. It is the place where we knock on heaven, not in a fearful way as in Bob Dylan’s song, but in hope and relief.

Dylan

Paradoxically, for me, Sundays have often been a time of anxiety. With a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety I found that Sundays were often the culmination of all my fears, because as an ordained minister that is when I would see the parishioners and I was afeared that they would find out my hypocrisies, my procrastinations, and my inadquacies. I might be afraid of conflict or embarrassment. Thus, Saturdays in particular, as I prepared for the Sunday services, would be times of dread. Indeed, my wife and I came to call them “the Saturday dreads”. Of course, on Sunday itself most turned out just fine; I would get into the groove of leading worship and preaching, and the people would respond well, and focus on God and not the preacher. I no longer have such Saturday dreads – well, hardly ever – but the memory of them is not pleasant.

The fact is that on a Sunday I can think of no other place I would want to be than with a worshiping community. While I am sufficiently competent to preach and lead, i do not feel any necessity to do so, and I really enjoy visiting other congregations and communities; just because I know how to drive a car does not mean that I need to be in the driver’s seat. That, for me, is Sunday – a time to be with God’s people, and with them, be the body of Christ, and catch a glimpse of the divine. It is something that goes beyond simply knowing God as the Creator, and it is also beyond knowing God as transcendent, as wholly other – it is finding the divine in community, which Herbert alludes to in the lines in the second stanza, “The other days and thou / Make up one man; whose face thou art, / Knocking at heaven with thy brow”. My prayer for today is that you have that experience of heaven on earth, of the divine in the human, of Christ in the face of friend and stranger.

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 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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