George Herbert is famous for his poems and his prose work, A Priest in The Temple: or The Country Parson. He is portrayed by his biographer Izaak Walton as a model of the saintly parish priest. Herbert described his poems as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could submit mine to the will of Jesus my Master; in whose service I have found perfect freedom.”
Herbert was born in 1593, a member of an ancient family, a cousin of the Earl of Pembroke, and acquainted with King James the First and Prince (later King) Charles. Through his official position as Public Orator of Cambridge, he was brought into contact with the Court. Whatever hopes he may have had as a courtier were dimmed, howeer, because of his associations with persons who were out of favor with King Charles the First – principally John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln.
Herbert had begun studying divinity in his early twenties, and in 1626 he took Holy Orders. King Charles provided him with a living as rector of the parishes of Fugglestone and Bemerton in 1630.
His collection of poems, The Temple, was given to his friend, Nicholas Ferrar, and published posthumously. Three of his poems are well known hymns: “Teach me, my God and King”, “Let all the world in every corner sing”, and “King of glory, King of peace”. Their grace, strength, and metaphysical imagery influenced later poets, including Henry Vaughan and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Lines from his poem on prayer have moved many readers:
Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, the heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth.
Herbert was unselfish in his devotion and service to others. Izaak Walton writes that many of the parishioners “let their plow rest when Mr Herbert’s saints-bell rung to prayers, that they might also offer their devotion to God with him.” His words, “Nothing is little in God’s service,” have reminded Christians again and again that everything in daily life, small or great, may be a means of serving and worshiping God.
- Adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts
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, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of George Herbert, Priest, are published on the Lectionary Page website.