The Agony by George Herbert

I first met this poem in Malcolm Guite’s book Faith, Hope and Poetry (my review here), and I encountered it again last week in his lecture ‘Christ and the Poetic Imagination’ at Regent College’s Laing Lectures. A blessed Good Friday to you.

The Agony

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of the seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach, then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

Know yourself to know the Bible

Mosaic from San Gregorio, Rome, now in Baths of Diocletian. 1st c AD. ‘Know thyself’

I am slowly working my way through the collection of essays, The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality, ed. Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif. Right now, I am reading the chapter about Scripture in The Philokalia by Douglas Burton-Christie (who wrote a good book about Scripture and the Desert Fathers called The Word in the Desert). Of the many important and interesting things he is bringing to light from the teachings of the fathers in the The Philokalia is this:

You must know yourself to understand Scripture.

Gnothi seauton — Know thyself, said the old oracle at Delphi.

How does knowledge of myself contribute to knowledge of Scripture?

One of the important things we need to keep in mind when we consider the entire monastic, ascetic, and mystical tradition of Christianity, is that the Bible is not simply a repository of stories and facts that we can come to a full apprehension of by our application of better philological and historical methodologies. For them, it was the word of God, and understanding it was part of being transformed, part of acquiring wisdom, part of knowing God.

This tradition, that draws from Origen but, in this Philokalia, includes St Maximus the Confessor and Evagrius, is more concerned with the spiritual sense of Scripture (which includes but is not limited to allegory).

We have here two different ways of knowing Scripture, ways that Henri de Lubac, in Medieval Exegesis, sees as both important, although one had (and has) the ascendancy. The way most of moderns read Scripture is the pursuit of facts, details, surface realities. This, at a certain level, anyone can do. It does not necessarily require knowledge of myself to have an intellectual grasp of the Pauline articulation of justification, or to argue that the Philistines were so good at beating the Israelites because they entered the Iron Age first. It requires philology, history, maybe philosophy.

The other way is the pathway of wisdom. This is the pathway where the question of justification is driven into my own beating heart and cannot keep itself to my intellect. Here, in this pathway, factoids like, ‘Philistines had iron’, are interesting, but not nearly as compelling as the drive towards understanding myself, the divine, the world, and how best to live in the midst of them all.

This latter method reads the prophets and asks, ‘How shall I live?’ The former reads the prophets and asks, ‘What did this mean to the original audience?’

But to be able to use Scripture to draw oneself up to God, to be able to be deified by reading Scripture, to figure out how to live with Scripture as a light — this requires self-knowledge. And self-knowledge is not something any age, our own included, has been particularly comfortable; explaining why the ancient wisdom keeps harping on it.

This theme, ‘Know thyself’, is a favourite amongst many poets, among them Sir John Davies (1569-1626), as explicated by Malcolm Guite in Faith, Hope and Poetry (my review here). So let me break off and give you instead a selection from Sir John Davies, Nosce Teipsum:

For this the wisest of all mortal men
Said, He knew nought but that he nought did know;
And the great mocking master mocked not then,
When he said, Truth was buried deep below.
For how may we to others’ things attain,
When none of us his own soul understands?
For which the devil mocks our curious brain,
When, Know thyself, his oracle commands.
For why should we the busy soul believe,
When boldly she concludes of that and this;
When of herself she can no judgment give,
Nor how, nor whence, nor where, nor what she is?
All things without, which round about we see,
We seek to know, and how therewith to do;
But that whereby we reason, live, and be,
Within ourselves we strangers are thereto.
We seek to know the moving of each sphere,
And the strange cause of th’ebbs and floods of Nile;
But of that clock within our breasts we bear,
The subtle motions we forget the while.
We that acquaint ourselves with every zone,
And pass both tropics and behold the poles,
When we come home, are to ourselves unknown,
And unacquainted still with our own souls.
We study speech, but others we persuade;
We leech-craft learn, but others cure with it;
We interpret laws, which other men have made,
But read not those which in our hearts are writ.
Is it because the mind is like the eye,
Through which it gathers knowledge by degrees–
Whose rays reflect not, but spread outwardly–
Not seeing itself when other things it sees?
No, doubtless, for the mind can backward cast
Upon herself her understanding light;
But she is so corrupt and so defaced,
As her own image doth herself affright.

Review: Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry

Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic ImaginationFaith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination by Malcolm Guite
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Early in the New Year, I finished this volume which is a beacon of hope for those of us who maintain faith in the midst of a dark night of rationalism, knowing that there is more afoot than reductionism and materialism and scientism with their false certainties provide. Yet how can we articulate that vision, having been raised in these -isms of late modernity?

Poetry is Guite’s answer. In this book, he discusses how poetry, with its fraught edges of language and human experience, its deployment of symbol and metaphor and juxtaposition, brings us into contact with the transcendent God and provides a medium for expressing those realities glimpsed at the corners of our vision that are almost inexpressible in modernist terms, realities, as I would express it, embodied in liturgy and the mystical. Here, the medium for this theological expression and outlet for realities beyond the ken of man is the poetic.

After setting up the problem of late modernity and postmodernism’s failure to solve or address the problem with any success, he takes us into the realm of imagination, of poetry, weaving in a few poems along the way. An extended discussion of two wonderful poems ensues — ‘The Rain Stick’ by Seamus Heaney, and ‘Prayer (1)’ by George Herbert. Here we see how language plays upon us and how the created world can be a window into eternity.

Then the methodology of reading poetry is brought forth, a methodology we should all use, whether reading theologically or not. Guite cites five ways of reading:

1. Tasting the Words
2. Echo and Counterpoint
3. Images and Allusion
4. Ambiguity and Ambivalence
5. Perspective and Paradox

Re-read each poem seeking after all of these.

The main body of the book is then arranged chronologically from The Dream of the Rood, a poem which I love, to Seamus Heaney, my appreciation of whom is growing. And that’s not a backhanded compliment, but a sincere enjoyment of a modern poet (rare for me). The poets along the way are Shakespeare, Sir John Davies, John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughn, John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, and Geoffrey Hill.

Not all of these men are Christians — Hardy, Larkin, and Hill are explicitly not. Guite’s treatment of them is sensitive and eloquent, showing how the honesty of these poets allows for the real life fissures in any belief, including unbelief. And not all of the poems are explicitly Christian, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.

Reflecting and refracting throughout the book is the image from ‘The Rain Stick’ of glimpsing eternity through the ear of a raindrop. And, from the arrival of Sir John Davies, an important theme of Faith, Hope and Poetry is the inner person, the microcosm (incidentally, an idea originally imaged forth by St Maximos the Confessor in the 600s), and how, for all its subtleties, physical science can never penetrate the human soul. Know yourself — but this is not achieved by science.

A third major contributor, and possibility the theorist who gave rise to so much of this, is S. T. Coleridge and his philosophy of poetry and symbol. Coleridge is important, for he is the first of these poets writing after the Enlightenment (Endarkenment). He believes that God, as Creator, is writ upon creation in a real yet subtle way. Indeed, symbols are not simply one thing standing for another. No, symbols are pathways from one thing to another. They bridge the gap between apparently divergent realities, human and animal, God and creation, nature and supernature. This, I observe, is not dissimilar from much of the theology of icons in St John of Damascus or, more recently, Pavel Florensky.

There are many great insights in this book, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to come to poetry and to theology with fresh eyes.

View all my reviews

Blood: Agony & Allegory 3: Isaiah 63 in the Fathers

To see what the Fathers have to say about Isaiah 63:3, about God treading the winepress of wrath and staining his robes with the blood of his enemies, I have chosen to look at Robert Louis Wilken, The Church’s Bible, volume on Isaiah. Like IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, this is a chain of patristic passages, but Wilken also includes medieval writers, and his passages are longer. I find it easier to read than the former, and I do hope the project as a whole some day finds completion (if Wilken or someone from Eerdmans has wandered by, I volunteer myself to edit/translate a volume).

St Cyprian of Carthage writes:

In Isaiah the Holy Spirit bears witness to this same thing when he speaks of the Lord’s passion in the words: Why are your garments red, and your clothes as if from treading a full and well-trodden wine vat? (63:2). Can water make clothing red? In the wine vat is it water which is trodden by the feet and squeezed out by the press? Clearly wine is referred to here, so that by wine we may understand the blood of the Lord. What was made known later in the cup of the Lord was foretold by the proclamation of the prophets. It also mentions treading and pressing down, because one cannot prepare wine for drinking without the bunch of grapes first being trodden and pressed. In the same way we could not drink the blood of Christ if Christ had not first been trodden upon and pressed down and first drunk the cup that he would pass on for his believers to drink. (493-4)

St Cyprian has here not only confirmed Malcolm Guite’s statement that the Fathers interpret this blood to be that of Christ, he has taken us into the mysteries of God, to, in fact, the mystery of the Eucharist. The wine-dark blood on the garments is a type of the blood of Christ, which is itself the wine at the Eucharist. The life of the Church is caught up mystically in the death of Christ and rotates back to find itself prefigured in the words of the prophet.

Origen:

When they see his right hand dripping with blood — if one must speak this way — and his person covered with blood because of his valorous deeds, they inquire further: Why is your apparel scarlet, and your garments as if fresh from a full winepress that has been trampled down? (63:2) To which he answers: I trampled them (63:3). Indeed, this is why he had to wash his robe in wine and his garments in the blood of grapes (Gen 49:11). For after he bore our infirmities and carried our sicknesses (Isa 53:4), and after he took away the sin of the whole world (John 1:29) and had done so much good to so many, then he received the Baptism that is greater than any imagined by men, to which he alluded when he said: I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! (Luke 12:50). (494)

One last (Wilken includes several other commentators), St Gregory the Great:

Long ago Isaiah looked upon the garment of Christ, which was stained with the blood of the passion on the cross, and inquired, Why are your garments red, and your clohtes as if from a trodden winepress? (63:2). To which he answered, I alone have trodden the winepress, and of the nations no man is with me (63:3). He alone trod the winepress in which he was trodden, he who by his own power conquered the passion which he endured. For he who suffered unto death on a cross (Phil 2:8) rose from the dead in glory. And rightly is it said, And of the nations no man is with me, since those on whose behalf he came to suffer ought to have shared in his passion. But, inasmuch as that time the nations had not yet come to believe, in his passion he laments those who life he sought in that passion.

So we see here Christian vision transfigured in the light of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. Many people get uneasy about the violence of the Hebrew Bible, and they feel that somehow YHWH there is incompatible with the God and Father of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Yet the transfigured vision of Who God Is, infused with a grasp of His undying love that died for us, with a realisation that God is Jesus, that God is love, that while we were still His enemies, One of the Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us — this transfigured vision sees prophecy in new light.

One of the themes of Guite’s book, Faith, Hope and Poetry, is transfigured vision. We are invited not simply to look at but to look through. Poetry draws us not to stay our eye on the surface of the glass of the window of visible reality but to pass through it to the symbolic realm beneath. The prophetic, apocalyptic, and wisdom literature of Scripture invite us to do this most especially, for in these genres the revelation of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity is made unto us in the poetic mode, through images, through symbols, through ritual acts, through symbolic acts, through utterances resonant with multiple modes of meaning and richnesses of voice.

So we look at Isaiah 63, and at first, if we want to read the Bible as Christians, we see the Rider on the White Horse of Revelation. After all, as Miroslav Volf argues in Exclusion and Embrace, knowing that God as Christ will come to judge the nations with perfect righteousness at the eschaton is what can give us power not to take vengeance now.

This reading is not wrong.

Somehow, though, the imagery of wine and blood together, and the inevitable association of the divine figure of Isaiah 63 with God the Son, lead the Fathers to see the wine and blood as Christ’s blood, in Gethsemane, on the cross, in the Eucharist.

It is a feast of imagery, plentiful with divine truths.

Blood: Allegory & Agony 1: Herbert

Masaccio, Christ in Gethsemane (1424/5)

Having just finished Malcolm Guite’s excellent book Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination, I am full of thoughts about poetry, theology, imagination, art. In his chapter on George Herbert, Guite writes about the poem ‘The Agony’, and how the line ‘His garments bloody be’ draws the reader to Isaiah 63:3:

I have trodden the wine-press alone … for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments and I will stain all my raiment.

Writes Guite:

But this image, of a wrathful God coming covered in the blood of those upon whom he has taken just vengeance, was daringly and paradoxically applied to Christ by the Church Fathers, both to suggest that, in making atonement, it is his own blood which Christ spills instead of ours, and to make a symbolically profound reversal of the Old Testament metaphor. In Isaiah, the wine grushed from the grapes symbolises blood; in the radical Chrsitian reading of that passage, the garments dipped in blood presage Christ’s gift of his own blood as wine. (123)

This, of course, makes me thirst to read what the Fathers have to say about Isaiah 63. But in looking at them, at allegory and typology and the fulfilment of all things in Christ, some discussion of method is, I think, necessary. So, allow me to write a few posts on these topics — at least the following two topics:

  1. Christological exegesis
  2. Isaiah 63

In the meantime, George Herbert (from this website):

THE AGONY

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man, so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments, bloody be.
Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay,
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

Spirituality, Trinity, and Tradition

A bit of visual heresy for you

I recently had a job interview with a small Christian liberal arts college, and when talking about my ‘faith journey’, the phrase I came up with was ‘historic orthodoxy’. I am committed to historic orthodoxy, having had my faith formed in my Anglican charismatic upbringing to have a live expectancy for God to show up and do stuff, a sacramental and liturgical orientation for worship, and a firm trust in the Bible as the authoritative revelation of God to the world. Sort of: charismatic, catholic, evangelical.

For some, the idea of ‘historic orthodoxy’ speaks of dry, barren traditionalism, of dusty doctrines, of incomprehensible theological jargon, of moralism, of a faith devoid of life, of a belief in mere intellectual abstractions and a form of Christian rationalism. For some, historic orthodoxy is a reductionistic attempt to tame the untamed God, to produce mystery-free religion with (so-called) accurate doctrines and a scientific approach to faith. It is fundamentalism. It is about controlling people’s minds and actions. It is dry. It is barren. It does not have the juices of the life of the living God coursing through its veins.

Not for me.

I think of this in light of Fred Sanders’ review of Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance. I admit that I have not read the book, so I dare not criticise it directly. But what Sanders accuses Rohr of doing is using some traditional language of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity to slip in a novel doctrine, mostly about something called ‘Flow’, and saying such things as each of us is the fourth person of the Trinity, and seeing Flow as circumscribing everything, including the Trinity. This view of the universe is, indeed, a bit New Agey, but also not surprising in light of the base doctrine of ‘god’ that most of us work with, as described by Matt Milliner in his splendid Byzantine art history lecture ‘Visual Heresy.’

Anyway, what I’m thinking is that the view that Sanders’ review claims the book upholds (which, not having read the book, I cannot verify as accurate or not) is one that would consider ‘historic orthodox’y as promoted today in the way described above. Rightly, Rohr wishes to reinvigorate our understanding of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity and connect the Christian doctrine of God with our own spirituality. But, again according to the review, in the process there is a statement that between the Cappadocian Fathers and William Paul Young’s The Shack, the Trinity was not really alive in the thoughtlife of the church.

Take it here, of course, that ‘the church’ means Latin, western, Catholic and Protestant. Nevertheless, it is shocking to see St Augustine’s wonderful writings on the Trinity excluded, as well as a Franciscan leaving out Bonaventure’s Trinitarian mysticism. It must be an erroneous representation of Rohr, either in the book or by the review.

Anyway, where I want to go is this: Mystery and Trinity and contemplation and mysticism and transcendence are part of historic orthodoxy, and historic orthodoxy is richer than its caricature.

To take an example, I am reading Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination right now. Here is a book that seems, so far, entirely ‘orthodox’ in outlook, reading various English poets for their theological insights. I’m not far into it, but Guite rightly observes that pre-Enlightenment Christianity was very happy with the poetic mode, that the ambiguity and fraught edges of language are exactly what we need when we encounter the utterly transcendent yet immanent God. You could look at poetry theologically in the entire tradition of Christian verse, from the Phos Hilaron (not that he cites this poem, it just came to me as one of the earliest Christian poems) to T.S. Eliot (Guite draws our attention up to Seamus Heaney, in fact). Guite’s investigation of theology via poetry, or poetry as a medium for theological thought, begins with The Dream of the Rood, on which I’ve blogged before in relation to the Ruthwell Cross, and then does not stop in the pre-Enlightenment poets such as George Herbert and John Donne (both of whom I love) but goes through Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Seamus Heaney.

Poetry and the visual arts (and, I guess, novels, music, architecture, drama) can bring us to places that strict propositional theological thought does not. Guite, thankfully, does not reject the endeavour of reasoned, critical theology, but sees the two modes of theological thought as happily co-existing. This is proper; Ambrose and Aquinas both wrote propositional theological treatises and poems. But we have neglected the poetic, the evocative, the ambiguous — the mystery of God needs to tread these borderlands of our consciousness. I would argue that this is why we need liturgy, symbol, ritual.

So let me come back to the doctrine of the Trinity. Our spirituality and our theology are healthy if they can embrace story and song, philosophy and proposition. Romanos the Melodist is important; so is Bonaventure. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote powerfully philosophical theology; he also wrote poetry. The tradition of Evagrius, Cassian, and the Cistercians is important. The tradition of Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin is as well.

I think that a simple and sound understanding of the historic doctrine of the Trinity, outlined in the Nicene Creed, Apostles’ Creed, and Athanasian Creed, is the foundation of a healthy spirituality. In God we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). He is transcendent and beyond all creation, therefore immanent and everywhere in creation. He is an incomprehensible mystery of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, every analogy of which probably gets us into heresy.

But understand this: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God and God is love. That is why God exists in Trinity, for therein can be found the fulness of love (I’ve blogged on this before). By his triune essence, God is perfectly fulfilled and perfectly love. When we come to the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity in prayer, we are approaching Someone(s) Who Is richly, deeply, and powerfully love, Whose outflowing and expression of that has manifested itself in creation, in redemption, in salvation — and in indwelling our own hearts.

We meet the King of Love in our own hearts, a Deity Who is beyond all our longings yet found at their centre. As John Zizioulas arges in Being As Communion, an exegesis of the Cappadocian Fathers, God is Communion, and He is the ground of all being, all existence. Thus, we are meeting with a real person, not a superhuman in divine form like Zeus, but a person nonetheless (Zizioulas also demonstrates that our understanding of person lies in the history of the doctrine of God), who loves us, who is Communion, and who chooses communion with us out of His/Their Own outpouring of divine love.

And then we realise that we are ourselves richly blessed with love when we enter into communion with others. Yet others are themselves impenetrable mysteries. And so we find ourselves at the frayed edges of existence and consciousness in seeking God wherever He might be found, whether in contemplative prayer, the Eucharist, or fellowship with other humans. He is there, and the simple doctrine of the Athanasian Creed can help us remember his characteristics, while the verse of John Donne or Ephrem the Syrian, or the mystical theology of Evagrius Ponticus can bring us to approach him not as a list of characteristics but as a real person.

We do not need to jettison historic orthodoxy to have an encounter with the Divine or a rich experience and love for God. This is what my Anglican charismatic upbringing taught me, and I continue to see it as I study the history of Christ’s church here on earth.