Sanctify this Work: George Herbert’s The Altar

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.