George Herbert - Love III

Year 13 Cathedral Reflections Wednesday 7/2/2024

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.

That piece of verse was written almost 400 years ago by George Herbert. He was what is known as a metaphysical poet – a poet who uses complicated images and ideas to explore things that are beyond normal human experience. In this case Love III, the poem that Devon has just read imagines someone being invited, as a guest to dinner, by God. Not, I think you’ll agree, your everyday dinner invitation or house party, but bear with me as we will hear it again after I have planted some ideas with you.
You don’t just get to listen to George Herbert, you can see him too. Not in the flesh of course, but in stone; there is a statue of him on the West Front of this building. If you perambulate around The Close in good weather then have a look above and to the left of that big door at the other end of the Nave.
Why is he there? Unsurprisingly there is a strong local connection. Not through birth (he was born in mid-Wales) but because after education and a brief political career he changed track, was ordained and then came to be a country priest at what were then the local villages of Bemerton and Fugglestone, just west of Salisbury. Travel out past the station, through Churchfields and you’ll find Bemerton village and St Andrews, the church where he is buried. For the brief period that he lived and worshipped at Bemerton he also wrote prolifically, including the poem that we’ve heard this morning – and he made the short journey into this building twice a week, every week to worship and then make music with the Choir.
And so back to Herbert’s words, his poem, one of the last that he wrote as part of “The Temple” a collection of metaphysical verse exploring religiosity and the relationship between God and Man. Love III is a dialogue, a conversation seemingly between God and Man, where God entices his guest to the meal table. The guest is full of doubt – about whether he is worthy of the food (or even whether he should be there at all), whether his sin makes him unfit to share such a feast at such a table. The verse is halting, full of questions and ultimately reassurance as the guest seems to get enough confidence to join the meal. As we read the poem once more, listen for the wondering, the questioning, the uncertainty and then finally the breaking of the barrier. We all question faith and look for certainty, often in vain, sometimes despairing even. It’s one of the building blocks of the human condition, a quest for meaning and enlightenment. George Herbert did that too – during his ministry he seems to have been constantly searching, and his poetry is shot through with self-doubt. But Herbert found certainty in his faith during those final years in Wiltshire, and he almost certainly found it sitting right here in this quire in this Cathedral – right where you are sitting this morning, some four centuries later …