At the east end of the north aisle in Salisbury Cathedral there is a stained glass window which depicts a small kneeling figure in the bottom left panel. It is partly obscured by a monument, but I remember seeing it when I was a student at the Salisbury & Wells Theological College back in the early 1970’s. The kneeling cleric is George Herbert, known as “Holy Mr. Herbert,” and thus began my fascination with his life, especially with the brief period he served as Rector of Bemerton, just outside Salisbury. As it happened, during my student days at the College, I became organist and choir director at the parish of Bemerton Heath, which is a daughter parish of Bemerton, further enforcing my interest in this remarkable man.
George Herbert was born in Montgomery, Wales, on April 3, 1593. He was the son of Richard and Magdalen Newport Herbert. His father died in 1596, leaving seven sons and three daughters. His mother was an extraordinary woman. She instilled in her children a love for literature, and she was the patron of the poet John Donne, who dedicated his Holy Sonnets to her.
Having attended Trinity College, Cambridge, from which he took his Bachelor of Arts (1613) and Master of Arts (1616) degrees with distinction, George Herbert was elected a major fellow of Trinity, and in 1618 he was appointed Reader in Rhetoric at Cambridge. In 1620 he was elected Public Orator, and he served in that position until 1628, which was a position of great dignity, having as his responsibility that of speaking for the University on public occasions. During this time, he was elected as a Member of Parliament, and had become a respected person in civic life.
In 1629, the life of George Herbert went in a different direction. He married, and gave up any secular ambitions he might have had. In 1630 he was ordained in the Church of England, and spent what was left of his life as the Rector of Bemerton. He preached, he wrote poetry, and he helped rebuild the church using his own funds. Above all, he was a great pastor, who cared deeply for his parishioners. By the time of his death on March 1, 1633, he was known far and wide for his holiness.
His two great works are The Temple, a collection of poems which on his deathbed he entrusted to Nicholas Ferrar, with the instruction that they should be published if it was thought they could do some good for “any dejected poor soul,” and A Priest to the Temple, or, The Country Parson, His Character, and Rule of Holy Life. It is this latter work which is a masterpiece of spiritual direction for those engaged in pastoral work. It can be read even today to great benefit, although written in a different age and in an ecclesiastical setting separated from the Successors of St. Peter.
Here is a small sampling of George Herbert’s guidance to the parish priest:
CHAP. XIII. The Parson's Church.
The Countrey Parson hath a speciall care of his Church, that all things there be decent, and befitting his Name by which it is called. Therefore first he takes order, that all things be in good repair; as walls plaistered, windows glazed, floore paved, seats whole, firm, and uniform, especially that the Pulpit, and Desk, and Communion Table, and Font be as they ought, for those great duties that are performed in them. Secondly, that the Church be swept, and kept cleane without dust, or Cobwebs, and at great festivalls strawed, and stuck with boughs, and perfumed with incense. Thirdly, That there be fit, and proper texts of Scripture every where painted, and that all the painting be grave, and reverend, not with light colours, or foolish anticks. Fourthly, That all the books appointed by Authority be there, and those not torne, or fouled, but whole and clean, and well bound; and that there be a fitting, and sightly Communion Cloth of fine linnen, with an handsome, and seemly Carpet of good and costly Stuffe, or Cloth, and all kept sweet and clean, in a strong and decent chest, with a Chalice, and Cover, and a Stoop, or Flagon; and a Bason for Almes and offerings; besides which, he hath a Poor-mans Box conveniently seated, to receive the charity of well minded people, and to lay up treasure for the sick and needy. And all this he doth, not as out of necessity, or as putting a holiness in the things, but as desiring to keep the middle way between superstition, and slovenlinesse, and as following the Apostles two great and admirable Rules in things of this nature: The first whereof is, Let all things be done decently, and in order: [I Cor. 14:40] The second, Let all things be done to edification, I Cor. 14 [:26]. For these two rules comprize and include the double object of our duty, God, and our neighbour; the first being for the honour of God; the second for the benefit of our neighbor. So that they excellently score out the way, and fully, and exactly contain, even in externall and indifferent things, what course is to be taken; and put them to great shame, who deny the Scripture to be perfect.
Practical, pithy, profound, and part of our patrimony!