Tuesday 21 August 2012

Dear Mister Herbert: The Altar

A while back I had the idea to write a small book titled Dear Mister Herbert – a series of letters to the English poet George Herbert. Herbert's collection of poems, The Temple, offers a whole theology of the Christian life. My idea is to sketch out his view of the Christian life through a series of short chapters, each responding to one of Herbert's poems. I thought I'd post some of them here – this is the first one, on "The Altar". Do you think this could work as a little book? I've planned for about twenty of these letters, tracing the broad outlines of the Christian life, from "The Altar" to "Love III". (And if any of you publishers out there are interested in a book like this, please get in touch with me!) 


A  broken   A L T A R,  Lord,  thy  servant  rears,
Made  of  a  heart,  and  cemented  with   tears:
Whose  parts  are as  thy  hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch’d the same.
A    H E A R T     alone
Is    such    a     stone,
As      nothing      but
Thy  pow’r doth  cut.
Wherefore each part
Of   my   hard   heart
Meets  in  this  frame,
To  praise thy  Name;
That,   if   I   chance   to   hold   my   peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O  let  thy   blessed   S A C  R  I  F  I C E   be  mine,
And    sanctify   this   A  L  T  A  R   to   be   thine.

Dear Mr Herbert

We've never met, but today I read your poem about the altar, and I was moved to write you a few lines.

First I should tell you something about myself. I am one of those people who grew up singing psalms and hearing Bible stories and going along to worship and sleeping on the church floor while the women bashed their tambourines and prayed and clapped and sang. I suppose I was chewing on communion bread before I had any teeth in my head. I listened to sermons before I knew how to speak. I knew King James English before I could say the alphabet. I have religion in my blood; if you prick me, religion comes out. One way or another, I guess I have been trying to come to terms with the Christian faith my whole life, but I have never quite known how to make sense of it all.

There was a time in my life when I repudiated the lot of it, or tried to, though it caught up with me in the end. Then I returned, full of youthful zeal, to the faith of my childhood, and for a while I was pretty sure I'd found the answer to everything. But more familiar to me now are those times when I feel neither wholehearted rejection nor wholehearted acceptance of my faith. I am in another place instead, a place of uncertainty and hesitation, a sort of faltering cautious trust. Sometimes I feel shy of my own faith, shy because it is so strange to me and I don't quite know what it all means. 

Don't misunderstand me, Mr Herbert. I believe in God and Christ and the Holy Ghost and all of that. My problem is not that I don't believe but that I don't know what to do about it. I guess there were times in my life when “giving myself to God” seemed the most natural thing in the world. What could be simpler? As though I could direct myself to God just by an act of will. As though all it takes is dedication.

But that was a long time ago, and I don't feel quite so optimistic about myself anymore. All that business of choosing and willing and deciding: what does it amount to in the end? More often than not my will seems like the problem, not the solution. I can't see how I could change my life just by resolution – even if that resolution was very pious and correct. Is life really the sort of thing you can just make up for yourself? By sheer force of will I can't add a hair to my head – didn't Jesus say something like that? Let alone “giving myself to God” through some kind of pure religious exertion. 

Even if I could do it – even if I could present myself to God as a perfect sacrifice, a total offering of myself – how would I ever know if I'd performed the sacrifice adequately? What does God really want from me, after all? What if I brought my best offering to God and – like Cain – God took one look at it and said, Sorry, that wasn't quite what I had in mind. 

And so to your poem, Mr Herbert. It is quite pretty, the way you've made the words into a picture. But it's a bit misleading too, if you don't mind my saying so. The picture looks quite solid, quite stable, quite sure of itself. A perfectly formed altar. That discouraged me at first. It's a poem about sacrifice, and I was expecting all the usual blather about committing myself fully to God, offering myself to God, that sort of thing. 

But you caught me off guard. The first thing you say is that your heart is “a broken altar”. That each brick is a fragment of your “hard heart”. And that these pieces are held together not, as I expected, by dedication or resolve, but by tears. Why are you crying, Mr Herbert? You make it sound as though dedication to God is not a religious achievement but a kind of misfortune, a failure. As though the real question of life were not how can I succeed? but instead, what should I do with my failures?

I think I can see, Mr Herbert, what you have done with your failures. You have brought them all together in this “frame”. You've arranged them in the shape of an altar, brick by lonely brick, just as the words of a poem are arranged on the page.

Is that how it is? Is dedication to God, the worship of God, a frame that assembles all my flaws, my failings, my stubborn hard-heartedness, and turns it all into something God can use? I thought about that for a while, and I started thinking about the sacrifice I could make to God if only I was completely honest about my own shortcomings. I assumed that this is where your poem was trying to lead me: to a point of penitent renunciation, the point at which I would be able to lay myself bare as an offering to God.

But that's where you surprised me most of all. Instead of presenting your own life as the sacrifice, you say that your life is the altar. The sacrifice is God's. The gift is God's. The devotion is God's. The dedication is God's. And the divine sacrifice is offered on this altar: the flawed, hard, broken altar of a human heart.

Dear Mr Herbert, when I saw this in your poem, I felt that my whole picture of the Christian life had been one great misunderstanding after another. It's not that I need to dedicate myself to God, but that God is dedicated to me. It's not my devotion to God that counts, but God's devotion to me. The secret of life is not my commitment to God but God's commitment to me. God is the sacrifice, my heart is the altar. And it's just my flaws, my hard-heartedness, my brokenness, that make me suitable as a venue of God's sacrifice. A broken altar. Sometimes my life really does feel like little more than a pile of old stones. Yet God has brought a gift to lay upon those stones. God is that gift.

Thank you, Mr Herbert, that’s all I really meant to say. Thank you for understanding me so well and for describing it so clearly. And thank you for reading this letter, even though I'm sure you have much more important things to be getting on with.

Yours sincerely, etc.

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