By Rev. Caroline Osborne
Anglicanism, of which the Episcopal Church is one branch, boasts a history filled with incredible artists and writers as well as theologians and scholars. C.S. Lewis, T.S. Elliot, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others were our brothers and sisters in the Anglican tradition as well as in the Body of Christ. As a lover of poetry, I am delighted to know that one of the poets I admire, George Herbert, was among these great Anglican writers.
George Herbert is remembered as a priest and poet from the early days of Anglicanism. Though true, this characterization can be misleading since Herbert was only a priest for a few years before his untimely death at age 39. His principle legacy is a prose piece on parish priesthood – A Priest to the Temple; or, The Country Parson – and a collection of poems entitled, The Temple.
Herbert was born in 1593. He began to discern a call to the priesthood as early as 1616, but he chose to pursue an academic and political career at first. Finally, in 1626, Herbert decided to pursue ordination to the diaconate. He remained a deacon until 1630 at which time he became the rector of a small, rural parish. Herbert served there until his death from illness in 1633.
Though he had written poems for several years, it was during Herbert’s three years as a priest that he collected and arranged them in the format in which they were eventually published. Interestingly, Herbert uses the metaphors of different parts of the church to explore profound themes including sin and grace, human will and submission to God, and pride and humility. This wrestling with God makes The Temple an intensely personal body of work even as it often deals with grand themes. He cries out to Christ in penitence as well as in praise, frequently holding conversations with Jesus in his poems.
The battle of the human heart and will to understand, accept, and submit to the will of God is not bound by time; these poems can speak to us as much now as they did to readers when they were first written. If you enjoy poetry at all, I highly recommend reading George Herbert’s works. Usually I would suggest picking up a copy of The Temple at the library. In the midst of a pandemic, the internet may be your best option. A selection of his poems and a longer biography are available at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/george-herbert.