LovePosted in Features
On the day that George Herbert was inducted as Rector of Bemerton in 1630, his friends waited outside, as was the custom. They listened as he rang the bell of St Andrew’s Church to signify that he’d taken possession of his living. After the sound of the bell stopped ringing out across the Wiltshire countryside, Herbert failed to appear at the church door. So one of his friends looked through a window and saw him lying prostrate on the ground in front of the altar. Herbert later told his friend that he’d spent the time setting rules for himself and the future conduct of his life and had made a vow to keep them.
Wherever you find a collection of Herbert’s poems, the one he called ‘Love’ is almost certain to be included, with its memorable opening line: Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back. He placed it last in his collection as if it were a summary of all that he’d experienced at God’s hands and all he had to teach. In it he sees the whole of life as Love’s feast and every act of grace a reminder of God’s invitation to share in it. In the poem we meet a God who inspires our awe – the sort of reverence which found Herbert flat out in front of the altar – but who also takes possession of our hearts.
Summoned to meet the God who is love but also majestic and holy, he draws back despite the sincerity of the invitation and the warmth of the welcome.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack / From my first entrance in, / Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, / If I lacked anything. ‘A guest’, I answered, ‘worthy to be here.’ / Love said, ‘You shall be he’.
When God invites us into his presence, we are worthy by virtue of the love which invites us. But Herbert, and many before and since, have hesitated because they couldn’t find this worthiness in themselves and have held back in embarrassment. Just as in our Lord’s parable the younger son returning from spending all his inheritance in the distant country, blurts out to his father ‘I am no longer worthy to be called your son’; or as Peter cries ‘Lord, you will never wash my feet’ so George Herbert says to his Love, ‘… then I will serve’.
Something inside each of us suspects that God can’t be totally gracious. We’d like to contribute a little something to our acceptance by him. But grace is always grace. Even when in sorrow we confess our sins, it’s his mercy and truth at work within us. Love bids us welcome to the feast. ‘You must sit down’, says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’ And so, writes Herbert, I did sit and eat.
Dear God, who made us without our help, you reward us far beyond that which we deserve. Take away whatever it is within us which shuns your welcome and keeps us from your banquet of love. Amen.