Christians historically have seen the weeks leading up to Easter as a time of reflection and preparation to more fully enter the mystery of Christ crucified and risen. We need tools to help us get there—prayer, fasting, church attendance, serving others. But one tool I’m convinced is essential doesn’t often make the list: poetry. Let me explain.
Too many people were taught that poems are like little riddles to solve. But they’re more like a pair of lenses we put on to see differently, and in seeing through them, we become more awake to the reality of life in the world. For believers, that also means waking to God, in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28 ESV). At its best, poetry helps give form to our formless thoughts, emotions, and questions—the things we feel or perceive but can’t quite articulate. It grasps not for explanation but exploration, offering a means of inhabiting our experiences with wonder rather than judgment.
And so, in lieu of this month’s regular column, I’ve chosen to share with you three poems by the 17th-century poet George Herbert. Though he wrote near the time of Shakespeare, the thematic concerns of Herbert’s work are just as relevant for us today. In his poems, we encounter a man who is wrestling with what it means to be a sinner in the hands of a loving God.
Slow down with these poems, and read them aloud several times as prayers. Allow yourself to puzzle over what Herbert is saying. I hope that in doing so, you might find a richer perception of God’s love for you—and your love for Him.
Immortal Love, author of this great frame,
Sprung from that beauty which can never fade,
How hath man parcel’d out Thy glorious name,
And thrown it on that dust which Thou hast made,
While mortal love doth all the title gain!
Which siding with Invention, they together
Bear all the sway, possessing heart and brain,
(Thy workmanship) and give Thee share in neither.
Wit fancies beauty, beauty raiseth wit;
The world is theirs, they two play out the game,
Thou standing by: and though Thy glorious name
Wrought our deliverance from th’ infernal pit,
Who sings Thy praise? Only a scarf or glove
Doth warm our hands, and make them write of love.
Immortal Heat, O let Thy greater flame
Attract the lesser to it; let those fires
Which shall consume the world first make it tame,
And kindle in our hearts such true desires.
As may consume our lusts, and make Thee way:
Then shall our hearts pant Thee, then shall our brain
All her invention on Thine altar lay,
And there in hymns send back Thy fire again.
Our eyes shall see Thee, which before saw dust,
Dust blown by wit, till that they both were blind:
Thou shalt recover all Thy goods in kind,
Who wert disseized by usurping lust:
All knees shall bow to Thee; all wits shall rise,
And praise Him Who did make and mend our eyes.
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 lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, 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 marred 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.