George Herbert’s Restless “Pilgrimage”

Through Lent With George Herbert
Monday In Holy Week

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Me, heading north on Highway 20 between Discovery Bay and Port Townsend on the morning of the third day of my pilgrimage in December 2016.

Pilgrimages are all the rage these days. I know many people who have walked the Camino de Santiago; Emilio Estevez even made a movie about it, starring his father, Martin Sheen, called The Way. I recently discovered that there is a path in Italy inspired by the life of St. Francis, called the Cammino di Francesco. In both of these paths the point is less the destination, no matter how spiritual and holy the end points might be, but the journey. People take a break from their regular lives, walk long distances, meet fellow pilgrims, and attempt to deepen their own spirituality. Sometimes people do not even know why they are walking, just that they needed to do something like it. I did something similar back in December 2016 I walked over eleven days from Victoria BC to Seattle WA (two of the days were rest days). I stayed in cheap motels and Air BnBs, and walked between ten and twenty-two miles a day (fourteen to thirty-five km). There was no great spiritual epiphany for me, and the International Hostel in old Seattle is not exactly a place known for being a “thin place“, but it was a good time for me to simply my life, if only briefly, and focus on spiritual practices. I called it the Camino del Mar Salish, the Way of the Salish Sea.

In other situations it really is about the destination. Muslim pilgrims fly to Mecca, when in previous centuries they would have walked or taken ships. I remember travelling from Kolkota in India to Yangon in Myanmar, and apart from the Bishop and myself most of the plane was filled with Buddhist monks from Myanmar; being a monk obviously doesn’t mean that one cannot use a jet. Then there is the trip I will take later this year. My wife and I will be going on a pilgrimage in June to Ireland, led by people from The Sacred Art of Living Center in Bend, Oregon. We won’t be walking there, but flying, and we’ll be staying in a hotel, not a hostel, and travelling from holy spot to sacred place in a bus.

In today’s poem Herbert compares the journey of life to a pilgrimage, and were he not writing fifty years before it was published you would think that Herbert had been influenced by John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (published 1678).

The Pilgrimage

I travell’d on, seeing the hill, where lay
My expectation.
A long it was and weary way.
The gloomy cave of Desperation
I left on th’ one, and on the other side
The rock of Pride.

And so I came to fancy’s meadow strow’d
With many a flower:
Fain would I here have made abode,
But I was quicken’d by my hour.
So to care’s copse I came, and there got through
With much ado.

That led me to the wild of Passion, which
Some call the wold;
A wasted place, but sometimes rich.
Here I was robb’d of all my gold,
Save one good Angel, which a friend had ti’d
Close to my side.

At length I got unto the gladsome hill,
Where lay my hope,
Where lay my heart; and climbing still,
When I had gain’d the brow and top,
A lake of brackish waters on the ground
Was all I found.

With that abash’d and struck with many a sting
Of swarming fears,
I fell, and cry’d, Alas my King!
Can both the way and end be tears?
Yet taking heart I rose, and then perceiv’d
I was deceiv’d:

My hill was further: so I flung away,
Yet heard a crie
Just as I went, None goes that way
And lives: If that be all, said I,
After so foul a journey death is fair,
And but a chair.

The journey is not pleasant. An anonymous commentator at the website for Bemerton Church suggests that Herbert’s poetry sometimes seem to “remind us of the First World War poets in their bleak view of life.” The eminent divine John Drury in his celebrated 2013 biography/commentary on Herbert, Music at Midnight, puts it in the context of  “dissatisfactions”. Outwardly, Herbert appeared happy in his new life at Bemerton, with his new wife, two orphaned nieces, a few servants, and refurbishment taking place at St. Andrew’s and at another living, Leighton Bromswold. However, he was far from his friend Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding, (who later published The Temple), and Drury suggests that Herbert wanted to move closer to him.

This poem, as Drury points out, is hardly that of a placid and content man. The stations on the way to one’s expectations are:

  • the gloomy cave of Desperation;
  • the rock of pride;
  • fancy meadows;
  • care’s copse;
  • the wild of Passion – a wild place of robbery; and
  • a brackish water with swarming fears.

The actual destination is not where he thought it was – what he initially saw was a complete disappointment when he got there – and so it is all just a way of tears, both “the way and end”. The ultimate destination is reached only through death, which is fair after so horrible a journey, and the first opportunity to rest, in “a chair”.

Yeah, that’s pretty bleak. Herbert was restless and ambitious, and although he had turned to the life of an ordained priest from that of the university, politics, and the royal court, he remained who he was. He was not totally purged of ambition and desire. As well, he knew he was a sick man with a chronic disease that could end his life early – which it did, in the end. Someone so conscious of the shortness of life could express some bitterness about it, seeing it as a climb filled with bitterness and deception.

This is not the same as the modern pilgrimages I talked about above, or pilgrimages in the past. That said, actual pilgrimages may be motivated by that same kind of bitterness and uncovered deception, and thwarted desires and ambitions. Some folks might call this a “midlife crisis”, although it can come at any time from adolescence to old age. The challenge is to navigate one’s life so that one finds out what is most important. For many Christians this is the hope of new life which may be found in beliefs in heaven and the resurrection. For some, this is not enough – they need to see the power of heaven and the resurrection in this life – in manifestations of the Holy Spirit, in charismatic gifts, perhaps, For others the need to see the gospel applied to problems of social justice, in what is sometimes called the social gospel.

George Herbert was neither a charismatic nor a social justice warrior. His achievements in the community were

  • constructive – he repaired churches,
  • poetic – The Temple, and his Latin poetry, and
  • pastoral – his book The Country Parson was a guide to generations of Anglican clergy.

I am not convinced that all clergy can be what Herbert prescribed, as I wrote in one of my earliest posts on this blog. However, if I approach him as an exceptionally gifted colleague from the 17th people then I can benefit from what he says. I may not find life to be quite so bleak as he portrays it, but then, I live four hundred years after him and did not die at the age of thirty-nine; I recognise that for many life is quite bleak, and that in the midst of it, people still have hope. Pilgrimage ends with that hope.

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.

1 Response to George Herbert’s Restless “Pilgrimage”

  1. Pingback: The Unbridgeable Gap at the End of All Praise | The Island Parson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s