Letter from a Member of the Ministry Team. Iffley Parish Magazine, June 2021.
The last fifteen months have been a time unlike any in human history. Like all pandemics, its development and effects have been unpredictable and complex. What is new is the speed at which the virus has spread around the world, aided by the much larger population than ever before, and one which increasingly lives and works in close proximity and in urban settings. Unprecedented amounts of international travel have also aided its spread. New too is our ability to characterise various Corona-19 viruses in great detail, our ability to track their spread rapidly, and our ability to develop effective vaccines much faster than hitherto. And new for us all have been major and profound constraints on our lives. These constraints seem to have led us to flag or to languish – unfamiliar states which we hope will be over before too long.
A group of us have in the parish have overcome our languishing to a degree by continuing to meet regularly, online, for reading and reflecting on the poetry of George Herbert. Born into wealth, Herbert was an academic, an orator, a member of parliament, and then a parish priest near Salisbury, until his death in 1633, aged 39. His poems have been described as having heart-work and heaven-work. They look at human relationships in depth, and with humour. He enjoys paradox and plays on words. Though he writes with an underlying assurance that God is within every aspect of life, his thinking has much for believer and unbeliever alike. What follows are a few points for thought from poems we have been looking at recently.
In his poem The Pulley Herbert lists physical and social human qualities such as strength, beauty, wisdom, honour, pleasure and then rest. For Herbert, rest refers not only to reclining, but also to what remains in life: we may have lots to live with but we should also be searching for more to live for, and taking steps to live a fuller life now. This call to search for more seems to resonate with the restlessness that we feel as the pandemic progresses.
In his poem The Flower, which many think is one of the finest poems in the English language, we read about restoration and renewal, as flowers form after winter. He sees that his heart has gone underground. It has hibernated, rather as ours have to a degree in recent times. For millennia spiritual writers have described how going through dark, empty and painful periods of life, such as in the pandemic, has led to distillation of the activity of our inner being, which eventually leads to growth and vigour and joy. Herbert goes on to write about the dew and the rain. He also comments that we are but flowers which glide, moving, but impermanent. Thus we are reminded that we are part of creation, dependent on the creativity of God. He sees Christ as the flower, and the flow-er, the one from whom love flows.
A short poem called Bitter-sweet reminds us that all relationships change, both in human life and as we relate to God. The pandemic has forced changes in relationships in many unexpected ways, though by no means always negatively. Herbert reminds us that in many relationships there is the potential for movement into deeper, more trusting, more forgiving ways. We are changed by both human and by divine relationships, and they change as we do: these changes make life an adventure. Herbert reminds us not to be fearful of change, for it can lead us to deeper love of one another and of God.
We have also looked at The Answer, a sonnet about faith. For Herbert, faith does its best work by questioning answers. In My Sour Sweet Days, a highly-recommended commentary on Herbert’s poems, Mark Oakley remarks that faith tests our certitudes, morality, thoughts and words. He reminds us that Herbert teaches us that the greatest problems in life do not have a single or simple answer: in fact they are fundamentally not fully solvable. The pandemic is such a problem. Rather than being solvable, it is something to be outgrown. The complex questions it raises resist easy answers. That applies just as much to the scientific and medical way through the pandemic as to the way forward in our relationships, with ourselves, our neighbours, and our environment. For Herbert and for people of faith that outworking goes on until we find our rest with God.
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