A Living Paraphrase: The Life and Message of George Herbert
A Young Death
In 1633, at the young age of 39, British poet George Herbert was on the cusp of death. As his last moments approached, he gathered a number of his beloved, yet private poems and sent them to friend and fellow cleric Nicholas Ferrar. The lyrical pastor wanted his companion’s advice on whether he should publish his writings.
The perishing poet esteemed his poems as the mean musings of a humble man. “If he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” Herbert wrote to Ferrar, “let it be made public; if not, let him burn it, for I and it are the least of God's mercies.” As his final instructions show, Herbert’s life demonstrated an outward focus on others. In both this pastor’s life and poems, we are met by a God who sees us as we are and loves us intimately.
A Noble Start
Born to a noble Welsh family, George Herbert began in a high estate. Though his father died before Herbert reached the age of three, his mother was a strong caregiver who shrewdly managed the family purse, ably reared ten children, and inspired sincere piety in her sons and daughters.
When Herbert reached school age, he attended a prestigious London grammar school. Ultimately, he would go on to become an orator at Cambridge University. This esteemed post allowed Herbert to act as the school’s official spokesman. His office even earned him the ear of King James I (the eponymous sponsor of arguably the most popular English Bible translation). Because of this position, Herbert was poised for an illustrious political career. His meteoric rise, however, stopped within fingers’ reach of the stars.
A Lowly End
By 1625, Herbert’s most influential benefactors, King James I and Sir Francis Bacon, had died, drastically diminishing the Cambridge orator’s political prospects. Leaving behind an enviable career, Herbert took up a position as the rector of a tiny parish church in rural Bemerton.
Though his new job lacked the public spotlight afforded by his prior appointment, the Welsh poet tended his flock with dedicated fervor. Herbert could often be seen visiting the poor, looking after the sick, or reconciling estranged friends. He even rebuilt the parish church with his own money. As he moved among his flock, Herbert truly got to know the people under his care and, in turn, gave them a tangible example of God’s love.
Three short years after beginning his ministry, Herbert succumbed to a deadly bout of tuberculosis. His poems were posthumously published in a collection entitled The Temple. These works would quickly gain the attention of the wider public, enshrining him as “one of the foremost British devotional lyricists.”
Through Herbert’s poetry and ministry, his parishioners learned to love a God who saw them, knew them, and cared for them intimately. This is most keenly observed in his poem Prayer (I).
Prayer, the Church's banquet, Angels' age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tower,
Reversèd thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days' world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear:
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
“God’s breath in man returning to his birth.” The words we hurl at the heavens rise on the very breath God first breathed into our lungs. Prayer is a conversation that the Father started long before we were born.
“The soul in paraphrase.” When we pray, we are attempting to explain our souls to God. The beauty of this act is that our words rise to the God who “knit us together in our mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).
“Christ-side-piercing spear.” Our prayers, like the spear that pierced Christ on the cross, go straight to the heart of Jesus. He, in turn, presents them to the Father as if they were his own.
“Something understood.” When God looks upon our prayers offered by Jesus, he understands us perfectly, perhaps even more perfectly than we understand ourselves. He is one who truly knows us and deeply loves us.
Understanding the Paraphrase
Though we were lost in our sin and mired in selfishness, the Creator became one of us and gave his life that we might know him. George Herbert dedicated his writings and ministry to teach that simple truth. His life was a living paraphrase of the gospel.
To read more of Herbert’s poetry, click here.