The Collar

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From the little church of St Andrew in Bemerton, George Herbert could walk along the bank of the River Nadder to the services at Salisbury Cathedral. Herbert also walked along a road which is perhaps unfashionable today – the way of holiness. Sadly, he died prematurely of TB and was buried in St Andrew’s Church in 1633, just short of his fortieth birthday. But a lady I met in the church, when I visited it a few weeks ago, told me: ‘He’s real to us today’ – and it’s surely through his gift of poetic imagination that he continues to minister to us.

George Herbert introduced no new doctrines into Christian faith, but through the poems he wrote he crystallizes our knowledge of things we have already dimly discerned. His way with God is conversational and direct: he’s happy to say that he loves God – but also feels free, like the Old Testament psalmists, to express his anger at the way he thinks he’s being treated. In his poem ‘The collar’ – a metaphor for discipline – he protests that he’s been confined; he’s weary of the Christian way, its constant restraints, its lack of rewards. … Sure there was wine before my sighs did dry it: there was corn before my tears did drown it.

Five of Herbert’s poems have the title ‘Affliction’ and this reflects his life: rarely in good health with a tendency to depression, at one stage with a single-minded ambition which took him to the post of Public Orator at the University of Cambridge but which only began to be fully satisfied when he became a priest.

People sometimes speak today of the absence of God and Herbert shows us there’s nothing new in this perception. He knew all about serving God in a world from which God had apparently removed himself.

‘The Collar’ expresses the torment of his state of mind. He wants to call God a tyrant. He feels he’s missed an opportunity to serve himself far better than God has served him. Have I no thorn / To let me blood, and not restore / What I have lost with cordial fruit?

But the mood of the poem changes when he writes: Not so, my heart: but there is fruit, / And thou hast hands. And then he concludes with the well-known lines: But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild / At every word, / Methoughts I heard one calling, ‘Child!’ / And I replied, ‘My Lord’.

Today, as in Herbert’s day, being a Christian doesn’t make God’s rivals less attractive or his commandments less restrictive even when a part of us knows that obeying them is for our good. Being a Christian today doesn’t make Christ’s call to self-denial any less of a crucifixion than it was for Herbert. But God’s voice may still be heard calling us to that service which is perfect freedom.

Dear Lord, help me today even through the noise of my anger and frustration, to hear your quiet voice calling me your child. Amen.