About the Commemoration
George Herbert, a model of the saintly parish priest, in his short life, made a lasting contribution to the Christian church and to English literature. He was born in Montgomery Castle April 3, 1593, the fifth son of an aristocratic and distinguished Welsh family. His father died in 1596, and the young son was raised by his mother, Magdalen Herbert, who was a friend of John Donne. Handsome, elegant, witty, Herbert excelled in classical scholarship, languages (Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French), and music at Trinity College, Cambridge, and, as University Orator, (1620-1627), seemed destined for high political office.
He served as a member of Parliament for Montgomery from 1624 to 1625, but the death of his patron, James I, together with the influence of his friend Nicholas Ferrar (see December 1), whose religious community called Little Gidding he frequently visited, led him to decide upon the study of divinity, to which he had long been drawn. He was ordained a deacon sometime between 1624 and 1626 and was assigned to Leighton Bromswold in the diocese of Lincoln. Although he was still University Orator, he devoted himself to rebuilding the ruined church. He married Jane Danvers in 1629 after a courtship of three days; the marriage was apparently a happy one.
In April 1630, Herbert was instituted as rector of St. Peter’s Fugglestone and St. Andrew, Bemerton (near Salisbury). He was ordained priest September 19, 1630. He served this tiny rural parish for but three years exercising there unusual diligence in pastoral care and taking pains to instruct his largely unlettered parishioners in the significance of every part of the liturgy and in the meaning of the church year. Izaac Walton’s biography (1670) of the man his parishioners with deep affection called “holy Mr. Herbert” reports that at the sound of the church bell announcing Morning and Evening Prayer, many of the parishioners “let their plough rest” that they might join their prayers with the morning and evening prayers of their beloved pastor.
Herbert, whose health had never been strong, died of consumption March 1, 1622, at the age of forty and was buried two days later beneath the high altar of his parish church in Bemerton.
His English poems were published shortly after his death by Nicholas Ferrar, to whom they had been left with the instruction that if Ferrar thought they might do good to “any dejected poor soul” he should have them published; otherwise, he should burn them. Two editions of the collection, The Temple, were published before the year was out; there were thirteen editions by 1679. The poems, called “the best collection of religious lyrics in English,” breathe a gentle freshness and grace, not without earnest wrestling with worldly ambition and a continued struggle to submit to his vocation. Some of the poems are still sung as hymns: The Elixir, “Teach me my God and King”; Antiphon, “The king of love my shepherds is”; and “Let all the world in every corner sing.” The graceful and moving poetry is a counterpart to the prose of Jeremy Taylor (see August 13), and it is W. H. Auden’s judgment that “together they are the finest expression we have of Anglican piety at its best.” Herbert’s poetry is like John Bunyan’s prose in that, although most carefully crafted, it leaves the impression of an unsophisticated mind, drawing its messages from ordinary life.
Herbert also wrote A Priest to the Temple; or the Country Parson, a simple and moving description of the parish pastor as well-read, temperate, given to prayer, devoted to his people: “Now love is his business and aim.” In this book, Herbert might well have been describing himself.
George Herbert is commemorated in the calendar in the American Book of Common Prayer (1979) and on other Anglican calendars on February 27 to make room for the commemoration of St. David on March 1. The Lutheran Book of Worship, the Methodist For All the Saints, and Evangelical Lutheran Worship remember him on the date of his death, March 1.
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.
See also: George Herbert
From A Priest to the Temple by George Herbert
The country parson values catechizing highly: for there being three points of his duty, the one, to infuse a competent knowledge of salvation in every one of his flock; the other, to multiply and build up this knowledge to a spiritual Temple; the third, to inflame this knowledge, to press and drive it to practice, turning it to reformation of life, by pithy and lively exhortations; catechizing is the first point, and but by catechizing, the other cannot be attained. Besides, whereas in sermons there is a kind of state [stateliness], in catechizing there is an humbleness very suitable to Christian regeneration, which exceedingly delights him as by way of exercise upon himself, and by way of preaching to himself, for the advancing of his own mortification; for in preaching to others, he forgets not himself, but is first a sermon to himself, and then to others, growing with the growth of his parish. He useth and prefereth the ordinary Church-catechism, partly for obedience to authority, partly for uniformity sake, that the same common truths may be everywhere professed, especially since many remove from parish to parish, who like Christian soldiers are to give the word, and to satisfy the congregation by their catholic answers. He exacts of [from] all the doctrine of the catechism; of the younger sort, the very words; of the elder, the substance. Those he catechizeth publicly, these privately, giving age honour, according to the Apostle’s rule 1 Tim. 5.1. He requires all to be present at catechizing: first, for the authority of the work; secondly, that parents and masters, as they hear the answers prove, may when they come home, either commend or reprove, either reward or punish. Thirdly, that those of the elder sort who are not well grounded may then by an honourable way take occasion to be better instructed. Fourthly, that those who are well grown in the knowledge of Religion may examine their grounds, renew their vows, and by occasion of both, enlarge their meditations. When once all have learned the words of the catechism, he thinks it the most useful way that a pastor can take, to go over the same, but in other words: for many say the catechism by rote, as parrots, without ever piercing into the sense of it. In this course the order of the catechism would be kept, but the rest varied: as thus, in the Creed: How came this world to be as it is? Was it made, or came it by chance? Who made it? Did you see God make it? Then there are some things to be believed that are not seen? Is this the nature of belief? Is not Christianity full of such things, as are not to be seen, but believed? You said, God made the world; Who is God? And so forward, requiring answers to all these, and helping and cherishing the answerer b making the question very plain with comparisons, and making much even of a word of truth from him. This order being used to one, would be a little varied to another. And this is an admirable way of teaching, wherein the catechized will at length find delight, and by which the catechizer, if he once get the skill of it, will draw out of ignorant and silly [ uneducated] souls even the dark and deep points of Religion.
This is the practice which the parson so much commends to all his fellow-labourers; the secret of whose good consists in this, that at sermons and prayers, men may sleep or wander; but when one is asked a question, he must discover what he is.
George Herbert, “The Parson Catechizing,” chap. 11 of A Priest to the Temple, in George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, ed. Louis L. Martz, The Oxford Authors (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 215-17.
Our God and King, you called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.
Readings: Psalm 23 or Psalm 1; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Matthew 5:1-10
Hymn of the Day: “Come, my way, my truth, my life” (H82 487, LBW 513, ELW 816)
Prayers: For poets and those who make language sing; For humility; For grace to find God in everyday life; For devotion to prayer and dedication to service among clergy and laity.
Preface: A Saint (1) (BCP)