Today is the feast day on our liturgical calendar for the 17th century Anglican priest and metaphysical poet George Herbert.
Lord, how can man preach thy eternall word? He is a brittle crazie glasse: Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford This glorious and transcendent place, To be a window, through thy grace. But when thou dost anneal in glasse thy storie, Making thy life to shine within The holy Preachers; then the light and glorie More rev’rend grows, & more doth win: Which else shows wat-rish, bleak, & thin. Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one When they combine and mingle, bring A strong regard and awe: but speech alone Doth vanish like a flaring thing, And in the eare, not conscience ring.
The poetry of George Herbert (1593-1633) and the music of Franz Liszt both grabbed hold of me a few years ago. I doubt that Herbert and Liszt have ever been put into the same sentence before, but they both express in their respective art forms a questioning search for God, and both appeal to my intuitive nature, which happens to be what guides most of my life. The sense that feelings are in control of thought, rather than thoughts controlling our feelings. One can’t explain intuition, and so we are people who live companionably with mystery. I can’t help but think that poetry and music do in fact exist to make us comfortable with mystery.
It has struck me as strange that musical settings of Herbert’s poems are, for the most part, by late 20th and 21st century composers. (Very sad that Herbert was not more fashionable in the mid-19th century when Liszt was composing.) Why now? The intimacy that Herbert establishes with the conversational tone in his poetry is, I believe, at the root of his appeal to our modern ears. Though our world is largely explainable by science these days, and God is for most Episcopalians not a terrifying and controlling presence in our lives, we still have plenty of questions for God. Maybe we even feel more free to question God because of those things.
His poem The Windows contains some of Herbert’s most cherished beliefs – chiefly that living what is preached is most important. He has some questions too, including the first line’s Lord, how can man preach your eternal word? He didn’t hide his difficulties with God nor his doubts about his own worthiness. But he knew that what we hear with our ears must also be heard by our conscience. That speech alone is not enough to communicate God’s word. Perhaps that is part of music’s value to the human experience? Words flare only momentarily like a flash of light, but that’s true of music too. Ah, but though we are crazie (flawed), God might still shine through us, as a window transmits light, when our lives are annealed (a process of using high heat to strengthen and color glass) by God’s love.
(a setting of The Window by composer Alan Lewis, Music Director at Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh)