The Flower

Posted in Features

If you visit, as I did recently, the little church in Bemerton where George Herbert was rector in the 1630s you’ll see a beautiful Altar-Frontal designed by Jane Lemon and made by the Sarum Guild. It illustrates Herbert’s poem ‘The Flower’. It’s a mass of colour with sunlight and rain streaming down on wild flowers of the field: poppies, buttercups and daisies. You notice that some of the flowers are shrivelled.

Who would have thought, Herbert wrote in the poem, my shrivelled heart / Could have recovered greatness? It was gone / Quite underground; as flowers depart / To see their mother-root, when they have blown; / Where they together / All the hard weather, / Dead to the world, keep house unknown. We experience this in our lives: changes from winter to spring, death to life, captivity to release, hell to heaven. George Herbert cried to God from the depths and praised him on the hills. Just as in his familiar hymn he wrote, Teach me, my God and King, / In all things thee to see so in his life and poetry he encountered God in the mood of the moment.

But how in our lives can we see God in everything when his presence isn’t obvious to us and may even seem to be working against us? I think one thing that Herbert would say is that we need to work harder at this thing called prayer.

In his little gem of a book: ‘The Country Parson’, written in his years at Bemerton, he speaks of his desire to see the parish as a praying community, centred on the regular worship of God in church. His day was given its shape and focus by the regular services of Morning and Evening prayer. Prayer, says Herbert is the churches banquet, Angels age, / God’s breath in man returning to his birth, / The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage…

Amid the perplexing changes of his life and mood Herbert, through prayer, caught a glimpse of God’s eternity. He ends ‘The Flower’ with these words: These are thy wonders, Lord of love, To make us see we are but flowers that glide; / Which when we once can find and prove, / Thou hast a garden for us, where to bide, / Who would be more, Swelling through store, / Forfeit their Paradise by their pride. If we follow George Herbert’s example, our prayers will begin humbly in the present moment but long hopefully for eternity.

It seems that walking where Jesus went always takes the disciple along the path of some degree of suffering. And the cross we carry doesn’t always get more comfortable along the way – but mysteriously it bears sweet fruit. And now in age I bud again, After so many deaths I live and write. The gift God gives us is actually to share a little of Christ’s agony in our experience before we know the power of his risen life. The paradox at the heart of the Christian faith is that to live you have to die – and George Herbert saw it in a Wiltshire flower.

Teach me, O God, that in me which needs to die today that I may live tomorrow. Amen.