"From William Temple to George Herbert"
Anglican Origins: Prayer and Holiness
The Most Rev'd Rowan Williams,
Archbishop of Wales
Saturday, 25th May 2002, at St Peter's, Eastern Hill.
I want to move on now by attempting to cross the bridge that I have thrown out from one area to another via discourse, by moving from Temple to Herbert, but before doing so I must just note one thing said to me over the break which I take very much to heart, which was that I should have mentioned Herbert Kelly, founder of the Society of the Sacred Mission. Kelly's anti-religiousness I think is again a very clear and very eloquent example of the kind of thing I was talking about in the previous session, and the fact that he was certainly close to the young William Temple is no accident. I had actually initially considered reading a bit of Kelly earlier this morning, but for reasons of time and spread of period and so forth I didn't, but if I have time later on perhaps I shall.
But for now I'd like to move on and think about the way in which some of this general ethos that I have been trying to describe affects more the imaginative and spiritual lives of Anglicans from the first period onwards. First of all a little background. The beginnings of the Anglican experiment in Britain actually have very varied roots, and I am sure you don't need me to remind you of that. There's not only the Continental Reformation coming in to shape the mind of the Latimer and the Tyndale, there's also the late medieval political movements of protest against the papacy, the so-called Conciliarist movement, which regarded supreme authority of the church as lying with the Council of all its bishops, not with the solitary figure of the Pope. And there is also that kind of reformist openness that was around at the very beginning of the 16th century as people began to rediscover, for example, the vision of Plato. And those who began to read Plato around 1500 were certainly among those who helped to shape the particular course that the English Reformation took. So it is quite a mixture of opposite extremes almost the anti-culture stance of Luther, the contemplative exploration of Plato and yet so often they are found within the same Anglican spectrum. And in speaking of the way in which the Anglican imagination in this period seeks to discern God in unexpected places, and to see the world itself as a kind of sacrament of God, if you want to look for that you will find it, for example, in one of the great Anglican poets of the later 16th Century, Edmund Spenser. The first bit of poetry I want to read is from Spenser's Hymn of Heavenly Beauty. You may recognise the first line but possibly not much else of it. I shan't read all of it it is a very long poem, but you will see her how Spenser is leading the vision up through beauty to God:
Faire is the heaven where happy soules have place
In full enjoyment of felicitie,
Whence they doe still behold the glorious face
Of the Divine Eternall Maiestie:
More faire is that, where those Idees on hie
Enraunged be, which Plato so admired,
And pure Intelligences from God inspyred.
Yet fairer is that heaven, in which do raine
The soveraigne Powres, and mightie Potentates,
Which in their high protections doe containe
All mortall princes and imperiall states;
And fayrer yet, where as the royall Seates
And heavenly Dominations are set,
From whom all earthly governs is fet.
Yet farre more faire be those bright Cherubins,
Which all with golden wings are overdight,
And those eternall burning Seraphins,
Which from their faces dart out fierie light:
Yet fairer than they both, and much more bright,
Be th' Angels and Archangels which attend
On God's owne person without rest or end.
These thus in faire each other farre excelling,
As to the Highest they approach more near
Yet is that Highest farre beyond all telling
Fairer then all the rest which there appeare,
Though all their beauties ioyned together were:
How then can mortall tongue hope to expresse
The image of such endlesse perfectnesse?
There is Spenser at his most Platonic, the ascent of vision through the heavenly powers, not only Plato but, of course, Pseudodionysius the Areopagite that household name for so many people the great imaginer of mystical theology and of the ascents of the soul through the hierarchies of angels. Spenser at his most Platonic and his most early medi†val in some ways. And Spenser can also pick up from Plato the connections between earthly and heavenly love, and it is a surprise from one point of view to find among Spenser's Summits his secular love poems the very famous sonnet on Easter, which has sometimes been used as a hymn. You have to read it remembering that this is actually a sonnet addressed to his poetic mistress. It's about love, earthly and heavenly, and in the final couplet suggests that there is a very straightforward link.
Most glorious Lord of lyfe! That, on this day,
Didst make thy triumph over death and sin;
And, having harrow'd hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This ioyous day, deare Lord, with ioy begin;
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dy,
Being with thy deare blood clene washt from sin,
May live for ever in felicity!
And that thy love we weighing worthily
May likewise love thee for the same againe
And for thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy,
With love may one another entertayne!
So let us love, deare love, lyke as we ought:
Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.
It is perhaps in the middle of the 17th century that we find this Platonic vision of the world the ascent through created beauty most vividly set out in the work of Thomas Traherne in his poetry and his prose. Traherne, who died in 1674 and who was, in his lifetime, a fairly obscure country parson like so many of the great poets, and published nothing in his lifetime and one not terribly interesting work immediately after death, appeared to keep his reputation alive. But it's the poetry and manuscripts that have been discovered in the 20th century that most vividly expresses what mattered most to Traherne:
By this let Nurses and those Parents that desire Holy Children learn to make them Possessors of Heaven and Earth betimes: to remove silly Objects from before them, to Magnify nothing but what is Great indeed, and to talk of God to them and of His Works and Ways before they can either speak or go. For Nothing is so Easy as to teach the Truth
becaus the Nature of the Thing confirms the Doctrine. As when we say The Sun is Glorious, A Man is a Beautifull Creature, Soveraign over Beasts and Fowls and Fishes, The Stars Minister unto us, The World was made for you, etc. But to say This Hous is yours, and these Lands are another Mans and this Bauble is a Jewel and this Gugaw a fine Thing, This Rattle makes Musick etc. is deadly Barbarous and uncouth to a little Child; and makes him suspect all you say, becaus the Nature of the Thing contradicts your Words. Yet doth that Blot out all Noble and Divine Ideas...
A depiction of the world as something to be possessed, owned, blots out noble and divine ideas, and what we seek is words which express the nature of the thing. As when we say, 'the sun is glorious, the stars minister unto us'.
When I came into the Country, writes Traherne, and saw that I had all time in my own hands, having devoted it wholy to the study of Felicitie, I knew not where to begin or End; nor what Objects to chuse, upon which most Profitably I might fix my Contemplation. I saw my self like som Traveller, that had Destined his Life to journeys, and was resolved to spend his Days in visiting Strange Places: who might wander in vain, unless his Undertakings were guided by some certain Rule; and that innumerable Millions of Objects were presented before me, unto any of which I might take my journey.... What then should I do? Even imitat a Traveller, who becaus He cannot visit all Coasts, Wildernesses, Sandy Deserts, Seas, Hills, Springs and Mountains, chuseth the most Populous and flourishing Cities, where he might see the fairest Prospects, Wonders and Rarities, and be entertained with greatest Courtesie.... For which caus I made it my Prayer to GOD Almighty, that He, whose Eyes are open upon all Things, would guid me to the fairest and Divinest.
Very typical of Traherne, that sense of an absolutely overflowing abundance of divine welcome and courtesy in the world around. And we see it again in his poem, Manna:
And all these strange and Glorious works will be
A Sacred Mirror of the Deitie.
An Orient Gem the world will then be found,
A Diadem wherewith even God is Crownd.
The very Earth the seas the stars the skies,
Springs, Rivers, Trees, the Brightness of our Eys
All will be Manna to the Hungry Soul,
Or Living Waters in a Chrystal Bowl.
All Pleasant, all Delightfull, Angel's food
To us, as unto God, Supremely Good
For he beheld them when they all were New;
And he who cannot erre, who first did view
Their Glories, having seen them, understood.
And plainly said they were exceeding Good.
There's Traherne: Platonism in autobiography, reflection on childhood and in poetry, and underlined there very particularly, not just the sense of God pouring through the ordinary perceptions of the child and of the adult, but very particularly that wonderful remark which I began with, 'the nature of the thing confirms the doctrine': true language is when the nature of the thing confirms the doctrine. You simply point to the beauties of the world and you don't map it out as a system of things owned by some people and not by others. And I think Traherne might have had a bit of a conversation with Tyndale about that, if Tyndale's sense of indebtedness and Traherne's sense of non-possessiveness come together.
There's just one more "Platonic" Anglican I would like to refer to very briefly. He's a late 16th, early 17th century poet you may have heard of: his name is William Shakespeare, and although he is not always thought of as a great Anglican writer, and although his personal loyalty to the Anglican church was a bit 'iffy' at various points in his life, I think we can possibly just squeeze him in. And in case we forget that he is a Platonist of sorts as well, we might just remember from The Merchant of Venice:
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
(V. i. 58-65)
Now that is the visionary side of the kind of ethos I'm moving on to think about in this second session. That side which owes something of its inspiration to the Platonic education of the soul through beauty and through love towards the highest. But as I hinted at the end of the last session, there is another side to this, which is something to do with the capacity to be open to God and even to perceive God when experience on the surface doesn't seem to confirm it. The role of experience in the Reformation era is a hugely complicated historical and theological question. Luther himself has some rude words for those who elevate experience at the expense of the cross, those who claim that the intensity of their religious emotion gives authority to their religious utterances. Luther bluntly says if he meets such people, he asks them if they are familiar with the cross of Jesus Christ, and if they know what it is like to be in hell, because as Luther famously says, only if you have been in hell can you be a theologian, a statement which I think is true and should be engraved on the portals of every theological institution in the world!
So the status and the nature of Christian experience. Well, a certain kind of rather debased Calvinism, certainly not Calvin's own view, suggested (or was taken by some people to suggest) that the assurance of God's mercy and God's grace was something which you felt. That is to say, you knew you were in God's favour because you felt you were in God's favour. And if you didn't feel you were in God's favour you probably weren't in God's favour and were going to hell which was very unfortunate no doubt but nothing much you could do about it because in Calvinism, as you remember, if you are going to hell you are going to hell and there's an end of it. That rather bleak picture certainly infects some English Calvinists of the late 16th Century, and the mixture of that kind of theology with a very strongly and rather uncritically biblicist approach to church order is what characterised a great deal of the Puritan wing of the English church from about 1570 to the end of the century.
We are talking here about figures, some of them very substantial intellectual figures like Thomas Cartwright of Cambridge for whom the Bible was the model, not only of church government but of secular government, and for whom the absolute double predestination of God's will was a central axiom in theology; that is God had already determined who was to be saved and who was to be damned before the foundation of the world. That had a number of implications, among them the rather startling conclusion, which Cartwright does not shrink from, that the law as laid down in Leviticus ought to be the law of England, including executing adulterers and so forth, and another startling conclusion which is that it is not right to pray for all people, because there are some people it is no use praying for! If God has decided they are going to hell, then you are wasting your time if you are praying for them.
Cartwright, as I say, is a formidable figure, and there is a great deal more to him than those rather hair-raising propositions might suggest. But they are there in his work, and they were part of the whole ethos of understanding. And they went with (very often) a rather wooden understanding of assurance and the need for constant sense of being in God's favour, with the consequence that if you didn't feel you were in God's favour, you had to take that as a likely sign of God's reprobation.
Now, as you will be well aware, the political and ecclesial side of this is answered at length by Richard Hooker in his great treatises on ecclesiastical polity. But it perhaps rather less well known that in some of his sermons, preached well before he started on the "big book", you will already find some of his responses to these doctrines of assurance which I have just touched upon. Hooker is consistently concerned in all that he writes to defend two propositions about Christian prayer. One is that it is indeed legitimate to pray for the salvation of all, and here he is on this subject:
There is in the knowledge both of God and man this certainty, that life and death have divided between them the whole body of mankind. What portion either of the two hath, God himself knoweth; for us he hath left no sufficient means to comprehend, and for that cause neither given any leave to search in particular who are infallibly the heirs of the kingdom of God, who castaways. Howbeit concerning the state of all men with whom we live... we may till the world's end, for the present, always presume, that as far as in us there is power to discern what others are, and as far as any duty of powers dependeth upon the notice of their condition in respect of God, the safest axioms for charity to rest itself upon are these: 'He which believeth already is [saved]'; and 'he which believeth not as yet may be the child of God.' It becometh not us 'during life altogether to condemn any man, seeing that...there is hope for every man's forgiveness...'. And therefore charity which 'hopeth all things,' prayeth also for all men.
So any suggestion that we should remit our prayers for all people indeed the phraseology that the Prayer Book might seem to suggest, any such suggestion is to be repudiated. The second theme which Hooker picks up where prayer is concerned is precisely to pick up this notion of assurance and to challenge it.
We ought to know that faith, like other aspects of our humanity, grows and changes. Faith is not something inhuman. It's bound in with our human emotions and experiences, and therefore the concrete sense of faith is not something on which we can place excessive reliance. Faith may be there but, like other aspects of our humanity, vulnerable to change and chance. We misjudge ourselves, says Hooker, as faithless when we don't see the results quickly. And so we need another kind of assurance. We need the assurance that in our darkness or doubt or failure, God is faithful. And here he is, two passages from a sermon preached in the 1570s:
A grieved spirit is no argument of a faithless mind.... [An] occasion of men's misjudging themselves, as if they were faithless when they are not, is, that they fasten their cogitation on the distrustful suggestions of the flesh, whereof finding great abundance in themselves, they gather thereby, 'Surely unbelief hath full dominion, it hath taken possession of me; if I were faithful it could not be thus:' not marking the motions of the Spirit and of faith, because they lie buried and overwhelmed: when notwithstanding as the blessed Apostle doth acknowledge (Rom. viii. 26,27), that 'the Spirit groaneth,' and that God heareth when we do not; so there is no doubt, but that our faith may have and hath...privy operations secret to us, in whom, yet known to him by whom they are.
Tell this to a man that hath a mind deceived by too hard an opinion of himself, and it doth but augment his grief: he hath his answer ready, Will you make me think otherwise than I find, than I feel in myself? I have thoroughly considered and exquisitely sifted all the corners of my heart, and I see what there is; never seek to persuade me against my knowledge; 'I do not, I know I do not believe.'
Well, to favour them a little in their weakness; let that be granted which they do imagine; be it that they are faithless and without belief. But are they not grieved for their unbelief? They are. Do they not wish it might, and also strive that it may, be otherwise? We know they do. Whence cometh this, but from a secret love and liking which they have of those things that are believed?
In other words, if you are worried about your unbelief, you don't disbelieve. If you want to believe, you believe. If your will and your longing still turns towards the objects of belief, well, belief is what you have. Secretly, in a complex and hidden way, but truly and really. He goes on:
"The faith therefore of true believers, though it have many and grievous downfalls, yet doth it still continue invincible". And later on in the same sermon:
Yet if we could reckon up as many evident, clear, undoubted signs of God's reconciled love towards us as there are years, yea days, yea hours, past over our heads; all these set together have not such force to confirm our faith, as the loss, and sometimes the only fear of losing a little transitory goods, credit, honour, or favour of men... to breed a conceit, and such a conceit as is not easily again removed, that we are clean crossed out of God's book, that he regards us not, that he looketh upon others, but passeth by us like a stranger to whom we are not known. Then we think, looking upon others, and comparing them with ourselves, Their tables are furnished day by day; earth and ashes are our bread: they sing to the lute, and they see their children dance before them; our hearts are heavy in our bodies as lead, our sighs beat as think as a swift pulse, our tears do wash the beds wherein we lie: the sun shineth fair upon their foreheads; we are hanged up like bottles in the smoke, cast into corners like sherds of a broken pot: tell us not of the promises of God's favour, tell such as do reap the fruit of them; they belong not to us, they are made to others. The Lord be merciful to our weakness, and thus it is.
Well, let the frailty of our nature, the subtilty of Satan , the force of our deceivable imaginations be, as we cannot deny that they are, things that threaten every moment the utter subversion of our faith; faith notwithstanding is not hazarded by these things.
Just occasionally, the textbooks tell you that Hooker's written style is rather turgid. I think that the vividness of language in these sermons should be a corrective to any such supposition. I think that wonderful evocation of depression, comparing oneself with others: "Their tables are furnished day by day; earth and ashes are our bread", is one of Hooker's finest prose moments actually. But the point in all this that Hooker is making is that precisely because Christian faith urges us and enables us to take the most comprehensive view possible of what we are, we can't lift up a moment of depression or loss or failure and say, OK, that tells me once and for all who or what I am, that determines my eternal fate. Hooker urges us, in this sermon and elsewhere in his writing, urges us to turn to the deepest longings, the deepest motivations of our hearts. What do we really want? Are we content with unbelief, because if we are not we are not unbelievers.
Hooker then is addressing the Puritan agenda, not just at the level of church politics, but at the level of individual, pastoral psychology. And it is important to remember that all of his work, including the many hundreds of thousands of words in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, is motivated in this way. Those two principles about prayer remain central: that prayer can and must be offered for all, because the grace of God is not limited for us, and certainly not limited in a present apprehension of it. And the second principle, that our feelings moment by moment do not determine our ultimate standing before God; we have to dig deeper to find what it is we most truly, lastingly want and long for.
And so I turn with much joy at last to Herbert, because it is at this point, I think, that George Herbert's theology and spirituality comes into its own. I said in the first session that we sometimes judge Herbert or assess him too much by the verses we turn into hymns, which tend to be the more positive, the less wrenching of his works. But if you read the whole of Herbert's poetic composition, you will see very clearly how his abandonment of a successful career continued to simmer in his mind and his heart and cause great pain, how his sense of a brick wall in his prayer life and his pastoral life threw him back again and again on the question of whether he had made the right decision, how so much of his own piety is, in fact, shadowed by that pervasive sense of loss. And the two sides of Herbert's work are inseparable. The George Herbert who so clearly says "Teach me my God and King in all things thee to see", the George Herbert who, like Spenser, has a deep and profound conviction that the beauty and order of things leads you Godwards, that is the same Herbert who writes the three great poems on affliction, the poem unpublished in his lifetime on perseverance, the great expostulation of The Collar: "I stuck the board and cried no more", and many other poems of protest, loss and doubt which so shadow all his work. Here's one of the affliction poems:
My heart did heave, and there came forth, Oh God!
By that I knew that thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief,
Making a scepter of the rod:
Hadst thou not had thy part,
Sure the unruly sigh had broke my heart.
But since thy breath gave me both life and shape,
Thou knowst my tallies; and when there's assign'd
So much breath to a sigh, what's then behinde?
Or if some yeares with it escape,
The sigh then onely is
A gale to bring me sooner to my blisse.
Thy life on earth was grief, and thou art still
Constant unto it, making it to be
A point of honour, now to grieve in me,
And in thy members suffer ill.
They who lament one crosse,
Thou dying dayly, praise thee to thy losse.
A very tightly compressed poem. To cry "O God" not prayerfully but in despair shows that God is in the despair. God on earth lives in grief, but because the body of Christ participates in the life of Christ, then the grief and suffering of all Christ's members belongs to him. And if you lament only the cross of Calvary, you forget that Christ dies daily in the suffering and loss of all people. And you praise God inadequately if you concentrate your prayers only on the cross of Calvary as one distant event. "They who lament one crosse,/ Thou dying dayly
praise thee to thy losse": that, of course, is Herbert a little bit at arm's length from the immediate experience of affliction. There are other poems which could be read here but which I have to say I find quite difficult to read in public. You have to forgive me that, but I turn to the poem, unpublished in his lifetime, on Perseverance, because it ends with a very, very deeply personal moment. Perseverance, of course, is precisely what Hooker is recommending, what Herbert understands, perseverance in the sense of continuing by faithful act of the will to believe that God is gracious and to hold to that belief whatever ups and downs may be characteristic of the inner life.
My God, the poore expressions of my Love
Which warm these lines and serve them up to thee
Are so, as for the present I did moue,
Or rather as thou mouedst me
But what shall issue, whither these my words
Shal help another, but my judgement bee
As a burst fouling-peece doth saue the birds
But kill the man, is seald with thee.
ffor who can tell, though thou hast dyde to winn
And wedd my soule in glorious paradise,
Whither my many crymes and vse of sinn
May yet forbid the banes and bliss?
Onely my soule hangs on thy promisses
With face and hands clinging vnto thy brest,
Clinging and crying, crying without cease.
Thou art my rock, thou art my rest.
A very violent image in the second stanza there. The words are, Herbert believes, moved by God in some instances this is a pious poem, this is a religious poem, reader, but is it? Is it going to help anybody, or is it more like a gun exploding during a hunt. The birds fly away safely; but the hunter is killed. Is that what the poet is doing discharging something which expresses the ruin of his own soul? Who can tell? But, "onely my soule hangs on thy promisses".
There is an infamous essay by the late Monsignor Ronald Knox in which he suggests that Herbert was an easy poet of sweet and melodious rhymes, inferior to Richard Crashaw. If you know anything about 17th Century literature, I hope you are as outraged as I am. Some people just don't bother to read Herbert! Well, you will see perhaps why I connect Herbert with Hooker, with the arguments about assurance and feeling that are going on. How those are, if you like, the 'shadow side' of the Platonic commitment to seeing God in the immediate environment, because the challenge to the wonderful paradisal Platonism of Spenser or of Traherne is, well, if God is in the environment, what if the environment looks terrible? The inner and the outer environment? If God is faithfully present in the glory and beauty of creation, pouring out, as Traherne says, "angels food upon us", what's going on when I don't sense that? Well, the answer is, the same thing is going on. God is going on. And how can I believe that? "With face and hands clinging unto thy breast. Clinging and crying, crying without cease". And digging down again and again for those deepest sources of longing and desire and obstinate blind faithfulness.
So the poetry of Herbert is very deeply linked, I would say, to the theology of Hooker in that respect. I think there is some differences of nuance between them, but there it is. Both, in different ways, provide an answer to what I would call a kind of debased Calvinism. Now I want to suggest that that particular kind of nuance is one of the things which helps the Anglican identity to survive one of the biggest challenges in the 17th century to its integrity and its very existence: a Commonwealth period when the Episcopal Church of England was proscribed and persecuted, and when those who had perhaps too readily lived in a William Temple-ish kind of world suddenly found that they were no longer at the centre of things, they were no longer deciding the fate of the country. And the last poet from the 17th century that I want to mention here is someone whose main work comes from a slightly later period than Herbert, but in style stands very close to him. I am talking here of Henry Vaughan.
I am very happy to speak of Vaughan as a local boy made good. He describes himself as a "Silurist", that is somebody for Siluria in South-east Wales. He was a physician in general practice, not very far from Brecon, and every time I visit Brecon Cathedral, I go past the grave of Henry Vaughan just off the main Abergavenny road. And I make a small obeisance of the spirit as I go past. Vaughan lived through the Commonwealth, lived through having seen the church deprived of its privileges and its powers, and in his poetry he expresses again both the inner and the outer sense of loss that goes with this. Here he is writing about the British church during the Commonwealth period, a poem of amazing boldness in its spiritual imagery, because he reaches straight for the imagery of the Song of Songs to describe the state of the church as the state of the abandoned mistress in the Song of Songs, and the restoration of the church can only come when the bridegroom once again returns to the church. And I don't think he is thinking of the restoration of the monarchy!
Ah! he is fled!
And while these here their mists and shadows hatch,
My glorious Head
Doth on those hills of Myrrhe and Incense watch.
Haste, haste, my dear!
The soldiers here
Cast in their lots againe.
That seamlesse coat
The Jews touch'd not,
These dare divide and stain.
O get thee wings!
Or if as yet, until these clouds depart,
And the day springs,
Thou think'st it good to tarry where thou art,
Write in thy bookes,
My ravish'd looks,
Slain flock, and pillag'd fleeces;
And haste thee so,
As a young Roe
Upon the mounts of spices.
That's a lament for the British church and a merciful plea that Christ will turn his eyes upon it. But Vaughan goes a lot deeper than that, though using the same imagery from the Song of Songs in his long poem, The Night. There, he reinvents the language that St John of the Cross used about the soul longing for God. I don't imagine that Vaughan knew anything about the great Spanish mystic, but he does exactly what St John does, which is to use the nocturnal imagery of assignation, escape, elopement, and also the conviction at the heart of it, that it is in the darkness that we come closest to the moment when dawn begins. Midnight is when dawn starts, because that's when the night turns.
...Dear night! this world's defeat;
The stop to busie fools; cares check and curb;
The day of spirits; my soul's calm retreat
Which none disturb!
Christ's progress, and his prayer time;
The hours to which high Heaven doth chime.
God's silent, searching flight
When my Lord's head is filled with dew, and all
His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;
His still, soft call;
His knocking time; the soul's dumb watch,
When spirits their fair kindred catch.
Were all my loud, evil days
Calm and unhaunted as is thy dark tent,
Whose peace but by some Angel's wing or voice
Is seldom rent;
Then I in Heaven all the long year
Would keep, and never wander here.
But living where the sun
Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tyre
Themselves and others, I consent and run
To ev'ry myre;
And by this world's ill guiding light,
Erre more than I can do by night.
There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.
What I am trying to suggest in reading these poems is that the pervasiveness of the sense of God, the refusal to tie God down to the positive moments, the religious moments, the meaningful moments, is bound up with that wider vision which I sketched earlier of the life of the church as something other than just a portion of human life. Here is the personal correlative of the political, the transition from Temple to Herbert. And I suggested also earlier that there was something in this that was in some ways particularly apt or appropriate to a lay spirituality. Vaughan, as I have said, was a physician, not a priest; and it is often lay writers, poets and prose writers, who manage to give some kind of expression to this end of the Anglican vision: to that "contemplative pragmatism" I mentioned earlier, to that sense that in all things God waits, and if we wait, then somehow the two waitings become tuned.
T.S. Eliot was often regarded as an extremely ecclesiastical sort of layman. He was after all a churchwarden, but let's treat him as a layman for these purposes (!), and of many, many possible passages I just give you two from the Four Quartets.
Men's curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint
No occupation either, but something given
And taken in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or the music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
The Dry Salvages, V
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here now, always
Little Gidding, V
The "condition of complete simplicity" which Eliot goes on to evoke after those words, and that little phrase that he picks up from earlier on in the Quartets: "Quick now, here now, always" one of the most unforgettable characterisations, surely, in the poetry of the 20th century of this vision of a God who will not be restricted but whose presence is so elusive, so dark and so mysterious, precisely because it is everywhere and not obvious, because it is not to be restricted to a religious area, to that safe territory marked off which is just God's. Nothing is just God's, and God is not just anywhere.
Eliot is a layman, like Vaughan, but of course priests do also write poems, even in the 20th century, and perhaps in the 21st too, and you won't be entirely surprised if I turn to R.S. Thomas at this point for a little bit more illumination of darkness.
R.S. Thomas, who died just two years ago, was probably the most significant presence in English language Welsh poetry in the 20th century, and one of the most significant presences in English poetry full stop in the 20th Century. He continued writing with, I think, extraordinary power and vividness right up to within a few months of his death. And in those last couple of years, and last few months, the writing becomes a little gentler than that which is sometimes associated with him. He is famously an austere writer, and loved to adopt the persona of an old curmudgeon. I think this was a fairly deliberate act on his part, and there are enough memories in those who know him of another kind of personality, but he quite enjoyed playing the part of the suicidally, gloomy Celt. And he played it to perfection. But here are a few bits and pieces of R.S. Thomas:
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.
There is an entire theology, not to say metaphysics, in those words: "We look at people/ And places as though he had looked/ At them, too". And sometimes in R.S.'s poetry there is an unexpected echo of the Platonic vision, of beauty breaking through and leading on, and so as not to confine him too much to the darker moments, here is a poem called The Bright Field:
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
R.S. was somebody who never settled very comfortably in the church at any period of his life and many of his parishioners in a series of country parishes in north and west Wales would have said that he was one of the least comfortable parish priests you could ever imagine. But his discomfort was as much with modernisers as with traditionalists. And in late life he had some very hard things to say about the mere modernising of the language of faith, and one latish poem which I will read some of is called Bleak Liturgies, a 1992 poem, and there are one or two references here to the church in Wales which make me wince.
Do we seek to plug the hole
in faith with faith's substitute
grammar? And are we to be saved
by translation? As one by one
the witnesses died off
they commended their metaphors
to our notice. For two thousand
years the simplistic recipients
of the message pointed towards
the reductionist solution. We devise
an idiom more compatible with
the furniture departments of our churches.
Instead of the altar
the pulpit. Instead
of the bread the fraction
of the language. And God
a shadow of himself
on a blank wall. Their prayers
are a passing of hands
over their brows as though
in an effort to wipe sin
off. Their buildings
are in praise of concrete
and macadam. Frowning
upon divorce, they divorce
art and religion.
Ah, if one flower
had been allowed to grow
between the wall
and the railings as a sacrament
of renewal. Instead
two cypresses ail
there, emaciated as the bodies
of the thieves upon Calvary
but with no Saviour between them....
The gaps in belief are filled
with ceremonies and processions.
The organ's whirlwind follows
upon the still, small voice
of conviction, and he is not
in it. Our marriage
was contracted in front of
a green altar in technology's
childhood and light entered
through the plain glass of
the wood's window as quietly
as a shepherd moving among his flock.
Faith can remove mountains,
So can cordite. But faith
heals. So does valium's
loosening of the taut nerves....
And when the computers that are our spies
have opened to us from the inside
he is not there; the walls fall apart
and there are only the distances
stretching away. We have captured position
after position, and his white flag
is a star receding from us
at light's speed. Is there another way
of engaging? There are those who,
thinking of him in the small hours
as eavesdropping their hearts
and challenging them to come forth,
have found, as the day dawned,
his body, hanging upon the crossed tree
of man as though he were man, too.
R.S. at his most savage, I think, and yet at the end there, a profoundly R.S. Thomasish set of metaphors. The receding of God at the speed of light, and yet somehow if you sit out the night, there is something to be seen in the morning. And the morning hasn't come yet that's what sitting out the night means. And occasionally during the night, as with the bright field, you have a faint glimpse of what morning might look like, and that's about as far as it goes.
Well, yes, a bleak translation you might say of the vision I have been outlining. And yet I hope you can see some flow of continuity in what I have been suggesting. R.S. Thomas and William Temple, again opposite extremes so it appears, but what they are both afraid of, what they are both battling against, is the confinement of God. In their different ways, they are both witnessing to this priority of divine freedom and divine initiative, God's capacity to be anywhere and everywhere. And if that is so, it is also God's freedom to show who and what God is, not in religious places but in the stuff of human relation and in the stuff of the material world. Platonism helps you to understand this, but it doesn't help all that much. You need, as well as Platonism, what has sometimes been thought to be its opposite, a theology of the cross, a theology of God's grief, as in Herbert's affliction poem. And so, Christian theology, Christian poetics, so this particular kind of Anglican voice seems to say, is always a theology from the cross. But it can only be so because the cross is opened up through the body of Christ to draw into himself the whole human reality, the whole created reality, as something utterly abluted in the self-giving of God. The theological voice, the poetic voice, speaks out that divine self-giving. And thus the theological voice, the poetic voice, is just another form of that Christian action which, for Tyndale, can commend in terms of witnessing to God's self bestowal on creation.
And to return to the question I have touched on once or twice in these sessions: is there anything specifically Anglican about this? Well if you mean do you have to be an Anglican to understand theology and poetry in this way, of course you don't. But if there is something which gives a particular flavour to some of the most deeply characteristic literature of the Anglican tradition, I think the answer is perhaps yes. And to try and see how this Anglican voice weaves its way between the poetic and the political, can be, at a time when both poetic and political language are often debased, one of the most substantial gifts that our tradition does has to offer to that wider Christian conversation which I mentioned earlier. I hope that after the lunch break you will have some reactions, questions and challenges to put to all this. Many of you have already said why haven't you mentioned so and so, and that's a very good question. And I'm sure over lunch you will think of many more people I ought to have mentioned. But my goal in these sessions has been first and foremost to offer some sense of not perhaps a wholly coherent, but a continuous Anglican vision, emerging across the centuries, which has been evoked and articulated, not just by prelates, not just by professional theologians, but by the voices of Christian imagination as well, and I hope that after lunch we can explore more of those voices and more of how they echo in your own hearts and minds now.
Just before breaking some of you have asked what this fat book is here that I have been quoting from. This has saved me bringing huge quantities of literature out to Australia. It's called Love's Redeeming Work, subtitled The Anglican Quest for Holiness. It was published last year by Oxford University Press and it is essentially an anthology which goes from 1530 through to more or less the present day, about 1990-ish, and simply attempts to select from that period bits and pieces from a variety of writers, lay and clerical, British and not so British, who illustrate what the Anglican sense of holiness amounts to. Not just about forms of prayer or litany, but very much about how the human enterprise is understood and perceived within Anglican Christian terms.
I just want to read two more things before we launch into questions. One is really in the light of the presence of the Welsh Male Voice Choir. I thought we should have one Welsh contribution apart from R.S. Thomas, and here is a little bit of Bishop Richard Davies, who was Bishop of St David's in the late 16th century and first translator of the New Testament into Welsh. He is explaining why the Welsh are particularly dear to God's heart, and how Welsh culture is deeply imbued with scriptural wisdom.
...In Welsh we have a number of sayings and proverbs still in use that are taken from the heart of Holy Scripture, and from the very centre of the Gospel of Christ...I have noted and remembered some of these. It is often said, A Duw a dignon; heb Dduw, heb ddim ("with God enough, without God, nothing"). Where does this teaching come from, where is its root and its warrant? Is not this the thrust and the purpose of the whole of Holy Scripture? Is it not this that the prophets, the psalms and the New Testament all the way through teach the Christian man? No need here to search for precise evidence: the need is rather because the evidence is so abundant to see which instances should be chosen and which left out so as to shorten the treatment of the matter....
No need to labour further to make you understand whence grows the Welshman's proverb, ("with God enough, without God, nothing"). Its root, its history, or its origin are in Holy Scripture. But (alas) although the proverb is still current among the Welsh and its words are familiar, it has completely lost its effect. Look at how the world goes and you have proof enough. There is so much greed in the world today, for land and property, gold and silver and wealth, only infrequently do you find someone who trusts God and his promises.... What is public office in Wales today but a hook on which to hang your neighbour's fleece and harvest?... Forgive me these unwelcome truths: for speaking unwelcome truths is the preacher's charge.
And I said a little bit about lay people and lay men, but just for the record let me share with you something from a lay woman executed under Queen Mary in 1546. Anne Askew, as she was waiting for her execution, her burning in 1546 for heresy, wrote a little lyric, and I'll just read you part of this because I find its simplicity very moving:
I am not she that list
My anchor to let fall
For every drizzling mist,
My ship substantial.
Not oft use I to write,
In prose, nor yet in rhyme;
Yet will I shew one sight
That I saw in my time.
I saw a royal throne,
Where justice should have sit,
But in her stead was one
Of moody, cruel wit.
Absorbed was righteousness,
As of the raging flood:
Satan in his excess,
Sucked up the guiltless blood.
Then thought I, Jesus Lord,
When thou shall judge us all,
Hard is it to record
On these men what will fall.
Yet, Lord, I thee desire,
For that they do to me,
Let them not taste the hire
Of their iniquity.
Using the word 'Anglican' of the martyrs of Queen Mary's reign is a little bit question-begging perhaps, but I love that poem of Anne Askew, and I thought that at least one lay woman ought to have a look in here.
Part One of this seminar
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