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Word from Wormingford

by
30 January 2008

Mortally ill, Herbert found help in prayer, says Ronald Blythe

OUTSIDE it is April in January, with snowdrops climbing the graves and starlings rushing over. Inside, we crowd into the chancel so that we can truthfully sing, “Lord, we are few, but thou art near.”

Falls of Garrya — named in honour of Nicholas Garry of the Hudson Bay Company — tumble from the sanctuary vases. Through its representatives, the village is at prayer. Everyone knows what to do and does it perfectly, and I am like one of those conductors whose arms go up and down in front of those who know the piece backwards. Yet prayer happens. I feel it happening.

Christ’s friends, good Jews that they were, prayed on and off throughout each day, like our good Muslims. But when they saw him praying they said, “Lord, teach us how to pray.”

My praying for the past two months was all about cancer. Five friends had been diagnosed with five different kinds of it. I wrote a list, and went through it each prayer-time. And it made me think of George Herbert, a young man suffering from consumption, the “cancer” of his day.

I remembered his less-than-three years’ ministry in what must have been a church and rectory like building sites for a good part of his occupation, and with “death puffing at the door” or “working like a mole” in his thin body. So surely there must be some desperate consumption prayer like my consuming cancer prayers? But there is not.

Like the flowers he adored, he wrote, “I follow straight without complaints or grief.” Sometimes his spirit is “lost in flesh”, and he notes how “life retains us from God.” All the same, he loves being alive, loves playing his lute, loves writing, loves singing in Salisbury Cathedral over the water-meadows.

There are bad moments. Yet “now in age I bud again After so many deaths I live and write.” Very ill, he says, “Lord, make my losses up and set me free.” Another dear Cambridge friend, centuries later, asked the same request when I sat with her. It could have been those dreadful fens that “did” for Herbert. The whole University coughed with their “ague”.

In “The Size”, he matches the familiar portrait we have of him with a self-description.

A Christian’s state and case
Is not corpulent, but a thinne and spare,
Yet active strength: whose long and bonie face
Content and care
Do seem to equally divide,
Like a pretender, not a bride.

A Christian’s state and case
Is not corpulent, but a thinne and spare,
Yet active strength: whose long and bonie face
Content and care
Do seem to equally divide,
Like a pretender, not a bride.

Herbert took great care not to have any truck with the doctors of his day, and treated himself with what we would call alternative medicine. “Herbs gladly cure our flesh; because that they Find their acquaintance there.” But Christ is his ultimate All-heal (Prunella vulgaris). Talking to Christ made him instantly better.

And so, instead of being a plea for a cure or an autobiography of illness, his poetry is a holy conversation-piece in which we are occasionally allowed to join in. Of course, there are ups and downs. “One ague dwelleth in my bones Another in my soul,” but the latter is soon cured. He had only to pray (talk) and the healthy conversation would begin.

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