14 February 2011

‘It is love alone that gives worth to all things’

John Donne ... “...for I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free.”

Patrick Comerford

We were talking this morning about contextual understandings in Anglican studies, and looking at the place of art, music and culture in the development of Anglicanism.

Among the poems read by students this morning were two by Anglican theologians and writers we had discussed earlier in the morning – John Donne and George Herbert:

John Donne, Holy Sonnets, XIV

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

George Herbert ... “Love took my hand and smiling did reply …

George Herbert, Love (III)

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

Poetry and theology

Earlier, I had shared how I had been first introduced to the writings of John Donne, Richard Hooker and George Herbert when I came across the writings of Izaak Walton in Dovedale in Derbyshire as a 20-year-old.

So often as we do theology we concentrate on Biblical studies, philosophical discourse, systematic thinking, Church history and liturgy. We seldom acknowledge the place of poetry in theology, yet Donne and Herbert – like TS Eliot and others after them – are among the great Anglican theological writers.

Those two poems were so appropriate on Saint Valentine’s Day. We shy away from erotic language when we talk about the Love of God … yet this is the language found in the Song of Solomon or in the writings of Teresa of Avila, who said:

● “Patience attains all that it strives for. He who has God finds he lacks nothing: God alone suffices.”

● “It is love alone that gives worth to all things”

● “Accustom yourself continually to make many acts of love, for they enkindle and melt the soul.”

On Saint Valentine’s Day, may you be filled with the love of God, may those you love know so, may those who love you realise you know that too.

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