Being put to the fire and talking about it: reading George Herbert

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Albertine Roses enjoying the rain, May 30 

On Saturday 3 June, I’ll be leading a day of Shared Reading  in London, and really looking forward to a day in the company of fellow readers, with poems by one of my favourite poets, George Herbert, and prose from Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal by Reader Patron, Jeanette Winterson. I’ll be reprising the reading day in Liverpool on Thursday 15th June in Liverpool. I thought I could do a little prep for those days here by reading some  George Herbert this  week. For more on this read yesterday’s post.

I’d started reading The Windows, a George Herbert poem I’m not very familiar with, and am carrying on with that reading today. Sorry to say, yesterday I only got as far as line two.

The Windows

Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
He is a brittle crazy glass;
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 glass thy story,
Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
More reverend grows, and more doth win;
Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.

Doctrine and life, colors 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 ear, not conscience, ring.

I’d been thinking about ‘brittle crazy glass’ and most my energy had been directed at ‘brittle’ and ‘crazy’ but now we come to ‘glass’.  The glass is brittle and crazy and that is its nature, but there is another part of its nature – light gets through – that is equally important. And it is for this that this that people are chosen to preach, are put in this position, ‘This glorious and transcendent place/To be a window’.  Even though  brittle and crazy is still the first thing.

This is the translation I’m making – because I am myself one of those people I wrote about yesterday who might be  struggling to believe in church or preacher. Yet I know from past direct experience, that if I can tune in to George Herbert, he has something to say to me that will be helpful to me. I have to get past my stuck thought, and into a freer, more open-minded place.

As a Shared Reading leader I first have to do this for myself – physician heal thyself! – then I have to be able to do it for any group members who might be struggling in the same way.  The way to do it is by offering imaginative translation that get you from one place to another.

I want to return to my analogy of yesterday about being asked to speak in public  about something.  I wrote about people who are members of Shared Reading groups who sometimes speak about their experiences in Shared Reading at conferences, or to funders or other supporters on behalf of the organisation. Most people – including myself – find that experience worrisome or even frightening, in advance. Let me just talk about myself  –  say I got a call from Cabinet office and someone said, they want to hear about Shared Reading, you’ve got eight mins to tell them.  I’d be excited at the opportunity and terrified of making a mess of it. I’d be thinking of the ways in which I am brittle and crazy (when speaking in public I am so nervous that I cannot look at my notes, therefore I  don’t use notes, therefore I have to remember what I am trying to say…) and I would have to force myself also to remember I am also a glass, that through whatever I manage to say, the human value of Shared Reading, may come through. The opportunity to speak is as Denise Levertov writes in ‘Variation on a theme by Rilke’ , ‘honour and a task’. Or as Herbert puts it here, it is ‘glorious and transcendent’.  Doing it, as I have learned over time, also changes you.  Some onf the internal weaknesses are burned out.

Thinking like this helps me stop feeling that a preacher is a foreign idea to me, and something I don’t want to understand.  I go on, to the second stanza.

But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
More reverend grows, and more doth win;
Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.

The word I must look up is anneal – to heat in order to remove internal stresses. And from the etymological dictionary, to put to the fire, but also with echoes of burning, fire and firebrand. Isn’t etymology wonderful?

Herbert is talking about the actual physical process of making glass – that’s his analogy – and I’m assuming this is stained glass, because of the ‘story’ being contained in it. Yes, I see later in stanza three, Herbert speaks of ‘colours’. But then he let’s the analogy go as he goes back to the  task of preachers, which is to hold that story, that light. The key thought is in the annealing – which is the process of being baked, burned, fired.  Without such a process the light coming through looks ‘waterish, bleak, and thin’.

This is to do with the pain that goes into real experience. A civil servant, a grants manager, a professional, may be able to coolly summarise Shared Reading in the language and tone normally used in Cabinet office. But a group member who has a story to tell about their experience – however nervous, unprofessional, or initially low-voiced – will speak with fire. Let’s read on;

Doctrine and life, colors 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 ear, not conscience, ring.

Here’s a powerful chemical mixture: ‘Doctrine and life, colors and light’. ‘Doctrine’ is one of those words that need a translation before the anti-religon person in our group kicks off on one.  Simply – a doctrine is a body of teachings.

Any sort of body of teachings without life added is dull.  I had to go on a speed awareness course. Two men were trying to teach thirty grumpy and self-righteous miscreants like myself why is was important to obey the law on speed when driving. What we were most grumpy about, to a man and woman, was the waste of our time on this silly course. But the two men running the course were very funny and  good at imparting the information and they liked driving, loved cars. They made it live, and that made it bearable. Our grumpiness dissipated. Doctrine – obey the speed limit – and life, when they combine… Good teachers at school were always like that, weren’t they? Something in them shone through, love of their subject or of us, energy in voice, in gesture, liveliness.

                          but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience, ring

Words alone, what Macbeth calls ‘mouth-honour’, is never good. The word ‘flaring’ is a great choice here, implicitly compared to ‘anneal’. Flaring is temporary, is over and done, however momentarily bright. ‘Anneal’ is agony and it transforms you. Flaring gets to the ear, but the voice of ‘anneal’ gets in to the heart, to ‘conscience‘.  I love it  that a thought which starts in self-doubt, in an estimation of our flaws, ‘brittle, crazy’, ends by reaching, through those very attributes, to the inmost part of another human.

Perhaps a little Jeanette Winterson tomorrow?

 

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