I ran across the poet-priest George Herbert for the first time this week, much to my delight. I’d heard of John Donne (of Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God fame), but I had no idea that there was a whole group of 17th century English poets that had an interest in religious writing! Apparently, they’re called the metaphysical poets. Not all of them cover religious topics like Donne and Herbert, but a hearty chunk of them did. The idea of the poet-priest was popular in that day!
George Herbert was kind of a hotshot in his younger years. He went to school to become a priest, but ended up becoming the public orator at Cambridge, serving in parliament, and personally knowing the king. After the king died, he quietly left the political scene and finally got ordained. He served 2 rural churches and wrote poetry until his death at age 39. His poetry career wasn’t some way he secretly tried to stay in the limelight; he sent his poems to a publisher when he was on his deathbed for them print if they thought it might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.”
I’m astounded at his humility. He mingled with some of the most elite Englishmen of his era! To turn around and take a job as a rural priest where the churches are so small that you’re expected to cover two of them? That’s a massive shift. But he seems to have enjoyed it. He wrote a manual to help country priests, A Priest to the Temple, which speaks of the job in the highest possible terms:
The countrey parson is exceeding exact in his life, being holy, just, prudent, temperate, bold, grave in all his wayes.
George Herbert, A Priest to the Temple, Ch. 3
That doesn’t sound like someone that’s inwardly miserable. It sounds like someone who genuinely believes they’re doing something of the utmost importance. He may have left the world’s seat of power, but to him, the rural pastorate seemed every bit as glorious as what happened in the king’s court.
In any case, today I just wanted to look at his famous poem, The Altar. It’s been running through my head all week, and it’s really been inspiring me to think about work differently (this poem was printed in an era where the letter s often looks a lot like f, so read accordingly):
It’s a gorgeous poem. It’s rare to see linguistic and visual artistry paired so seamlessly. Different disciplines are all too often siloed, robbing us of possibilities like this. The particular line that I keep coming back to is, “sanctify this altar to be thine.” What a bold request. Obviously, it works in the context of the poem to refer to his heart, but since the poem is in the shame of an altar, it works on another level: Herbert is asking God to sanctify his work itself! He gave of himself and his time to create this poem, and now he asks God to bless it.
I don’t know how often I consider my work something to lay at the feet of God. I’m usually caught up in thinking about how many people will like it, or if it will make me look impressive or silly or whatever else. But if I sincerely give something my all and dedicate it to God, wouldn’t that be blessingworthy? Even if the world hates it, I have to imagine he’d enjoy it, and what matters more than that? No wonder George was so humble. He was serving the world, but working for the approval of an audience of one.
Anthony of Egypt is one of the most meaningful Christian mentors I’ve ever had, and he lived over a thousand years ago as a poor, solitary monk in the Egyptian desert. All I have from him is a biography that someone else wrote (I mean, the famous bishop Athanasius wrote it, so, to be fair, it’s pretty good), a few letters of questionable authorship (they use some pretty technical terminology for a poor, uneducated monk), and some wise quotes from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (a collection of wise quotes from 4th century monks in the Egyptian desert). Even though he doesn’t have the same body of work as someone like Augustine or Calvin, Anthony is so much more than his writings. He’s the holy man that drew a generation of Christians out to the desert. He’s the father of monks. He’s the originator of monastic wisdom. He’s a legend.
I love Anthony. And since January 17th was his official memorial/feast day/commemoration/whatever other name for celebrating a saint the different denominations can come up with, I wanted to take a minute and appreciate him.
Anthony, or Abba (father) Anthony, as the desert monks would have known him, offers a spirituality that’s untethered by the quest for hedonistic pleasure and self-fulfillment that modern spirituality is so often tied to. He didn’t pray because he needed a divine favor or because he was hoping that he’d get some sense of euphoria from the experience. No, this is someone who gave everything for God. He bled for God. He hungered for God. He had an uncomfortable, no holds barred spirituality that commanded that he give over everything and spend every second in service to properly live the Christian life.
If all of that suffering makes it sound like he had some weird system of works righteousness or was a wild masochist, I assure you that isn’t at all what he was like. He just loved God. He would do anything that God asked of him, regardless of the physical toll it would take. Take, for example, his reaction to the classic verse Matthew 19:21:
[Anthony] entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man Matthew 19:21, ‘If you would be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and you shall have treasure in heaven.’ Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers
(Life of St. Anthony, 2)
Who actually does that? It takes an iron will to legitimately actually do what Jesus said to do in that instance. We usually spiritualize it away or say that it really only applied to the specific person that Jesus was talking to in the story, but Anthony? He just… gave away everything. He didn’t even take a week to think about it! He knew what God wanted, and so he did it, regardless of the cost.
That leads to an intense war with devils and demons in the early part of his biography. The devil comes in and reminds him of his past wealth, or tries to distract him with his own lust or boredom, and Anthony responds with prayer, conquering the Devil’s temptations through the power of God. These scenes are often wildly dramatic. My favorite is when he travels into a tomb filled with demons to pray and demons show up and beat him all night. The villagers find him and take him back to town and try to heal him, but when he regains his consciousness, what does he do? Asks to be carried back to the tomb, where he screams to the horde of demons:
Here am I, Antony; I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more. Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ! (Rom 8:35)
(Life of St. Anthony, 9)
and then he starts singing some of his favorite hymns until the demons show up again in the forms of animals to resume their attack. Now, is this a literal story? Probably not. I don’t think that demons can just physically show up in the form of animals and start pummeling you (at least, it hasn’t happened to me just yet), and I can’t imagine a village of people finding you half dead in a demon tomb and then throwing you back in the next day, even if you begged them. But it’s a really neat way of expressing the spiritual journey that Anthony went on to die to this world, the temptations that he wrestled with with along the way, and how his efforts to live a holy life weren’t something that gave him any degree of physical comfort. He didn’t do it to feel good. He did it because he loved God and wanted to be closer to him. He emerges from the tomb with an ultradramatic ray of light from heaven coming down on him, showing that Anthony’s love and obedience have made him holy.
The biography might be ultra-cheesy, but it’s got a lot of good stuff in there. And his wisdom sayings are even more approachable, as found in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. My personal favorite is:
A brother said to Abba Anthony, “Pray for me.” The old man said to him, “I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.
(The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 4)
Some of the other quotes are more comforting than that one, but to me, this captures the rigorous spirituality of Anthony’s life. You want to grow holy? Stop talking about it and do it. You don’t need a new book on your shelf. You don’t need the right person to pray. You don’t need some fancy new technique. You need to get up, stop making excuses, and do it. As John Chrysostom said so eloquently, “human effort is profitless without help from above; but no one receives such help unless they themselves choose to make an effort,” (Philokalia, Loc. 13,333). Anthony’s little warning to pray for yourself is one that I come back to a lot. When my spiritual life is bad and I’m frustrated, I have to ask myself, am I actually putting in time and effort? Or am I just expecting God to work magic on me while I go about my life as I choose to live it. It’s a call to repent and live life intentionally, and if there’s any lesson I hear from the father of monks, it’s that the Christian life takes effort and intention.
Here’s the prayer from the Catholic breviary (Christian Prayer, 1064) for January 17th. Whether you feel comfortable praying it or not is up to you, but I’d like to close with it either way:
Father, You called Saint Anthony to renounce the world and serve you in the solitude of the desert. By his prayers and example, may we learn to deny ourselves and to love you above all things. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen