An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Ten: Friday after the Second Sunday of Advent
Please forgive me for not posting yesterday. I was busy in the Senate House at the University of London being formally admitted to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, along with many other distinguished candidates. For those who might be interested, you can see a video of me getting the degree here and also here. The title of my dissertation was “Unsettling Theology: The Theological Legacy of the Indian Residential Schools of Canada 1880-1970”.
Now, back to Herbert!
The Temper (2)
It cannot be. Where is that mighty joy,
Which just now took up all my heart?
Lord, if thou must needs use thy dart,
Save that, and me; or sin for both destroy.
The grosser world stands to thy word and art;
But thy diviner world of grace
Thou suddenly dost raise and race,
And ev’ry day a new Creator art.
O fix thy chair of grace, that all my powers
May also fix their reverence:
For when thou dost depart from hence,
They grow unruly, and sit in thy bowers.
Scatter, or bind them all to bend to thee:
Though elements change, and heaven move,
Let not thy higher Court remove,
But keep a standing Majesty in me.
The rhyme scheme is simple enough, with each of the four stanzas being ABBA etc, and there are ten syllables in the first and fourth lines, and eight in the middle two.
The striking thing about the poem is how it stops suddenly after just four syllables. The poet laments lost joy, and begs God not to destroy it, except it be to destroy sin for the poet and his joy. The poet does not say what kind of joy it is – perhaps an emotional joy relating to the presence of another person, or divine joy.
Ann Pasternak Slater states that in line 5 “stands” means “witness”, but Herbert is possibly playing with positions of the body when in line 16 he begs that Majesty “stand . . . in me.” We also see “bend” in line 13 and “sit” in line 12. There is a “chair of grace” in line 9, before which one would bend the knee, so we have the allusion to a variety of postures.
Interestingly, the “grosser world” of creation persists in its witness to the “word and art” of God, but joy seems more ephemeral, and the poet describes the “world of grace” as a new creation every day; this is an inversion of the usual understanding of the divine world and eternal, unchanging, and the created world as decaying and constantly changing. But this is a poem about one’s subjective “temper”, and so it the poet’s phenomenological experience of God is even more changeable than the material world around it. Herbert’s powers become unruly when not fixed on the chair of grace (a metonym for God), even when sitting in the bowers of God’s creation. Thus he begs God to “keep a standing majesty in me”, kind of like a standing army that will scatter or bend his powers to God.
Posture has always been important in Christian life. Kneeling, whether before God, or a sovereign, or (as yesterday) before a Vice-Chancellor admitting one’s to a degree, is a vulnerable position. One is lower than the other. If it is a monarch knighting you, a sword is uncomfortably close to one’s neck. One might hold one’s hands together as in prayer, meaning one is unable to defend oneself. Sometimes eyes are closed, or staring at the feet of the superior position. All in all, it is all about humility.
Christians will also sit and stand. Standing with one’s hands in the air is another ancient form of prayer, usually associated with praise. It is the position presbyters and priests adopt when praying the Eucharistic Prayer. It is the position we often see people in when they are saying the Lord’s Prayer. Charismatics use it, oddly with just one hand up, when singing praise.
I was raised in the United Church of Canada, in which the standard position was to sit. When saying the daily offices and when praying I still mostly sit. When in communal situations I will stand and kneel to pray, and I will sit only when listening to the readings.
What is God’s position? I like the idea that I am occupied by God’s majesty. Sometimes I feel humble, and other times joyful. Regardless, I pray that God is always with me. My temperament may change, but I want God’s to be constant.