“Love Bade Me Welcome…”

Here you have it — 18 lines of the most exquisite poetry from the devotional poet George Herbert.

LEFT: Robert White’s 1674 portrait of George Herbert, from the UK’s National Portrait Gallery. RIGHT: Albrecht Dürer illustration of Christ, from an 1894 edition of Herbert’s The Temple.
LEFT: Robert White’s 1674 portrait of George Herbert, from the UK’s National Portrait Gallery. RIGHT: Albrecht Dürer illustration of Christ, from an 1894 edition of Herbert’s The Temple. (photo: Public Domain)

While awaiting execution by order of Cromwell and the parliamentary rebels who sought his head, England’s doomed king, Charles I, we are told, sought consolation in the poetry of George Herbert, whose religious themes would certainly appeal to a broken and deposed monarch on whom the ax was about to fall. Which it did, in January 1649, following seven years of bloody Civil War.

Herbert’s end, which came some years before, was, by all accounts, a far more peaceful affair: he died of consumption, in his own bed, in the year 1633.

But only God can say which of the two made a better end. Because, at the moment of the final summons, it is not the outward bearing that matters, nor the circumstances that determine our taking leave of this world, but the inward disposition of the soul. Are we truly ready to be received into the arms of Almighty God? “In the evening of our life,” St. John of the Cross reminds us, “we shall be judged on love.” 

And so, who knows, maybe they both made a good death, going happily home to God — fortified, one likes to think, by a line or two of inspired devotional verse.

Like these opening lines from “Love III,” the very last poem Herbert ever wrote, inserted into a little book calledThe Temple, which was published the year after his death: 

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

The setting is a banquet, a love feast, to which the soul, while clearly invited, remains so strongly averse to attending that further inducements will have to be made to ensure his presence. But why exactly should he refuse? It can’t be the cuisine, Christ himself having not only hosted the meal, but having broken himself to become the main course.

While perfectly lame, his excuse for staying away is plainly laid out in the first few lines, namely, the “dust and sin” that, in his judgment at least, leave him with a disqualifying sense of guilt. Notice, however, that the host is not put off by this at all. Dust? Why should that trivial detail inconvenience God? After all, as the psalmist says, “He remembereth that we are dust” (Psalm 102:14). Could anything God made possibly give him grief, or cause him to regret making it? And as for sin, it is the very reason for the season. Why else would Jesus, for instance, have told us the Parable of the Prodigal Son, unless he wanted to show us that, despite our having committed so many sins, the Father persists in waiting for our return and will, however belatedly, welcome us when at last we do show up? Then throw a party in our honor! How can that be? Simple. Because the one who was lost has been found again.

We mustn’t forget the primacy of grace here. That it is always Jesus who takes the initiative, who is not so easily deflected by our defects. It is as if, in accosting us with his overmastering mercy, he were to ask, “So, what’s been keeping you? Did you not know the party’s especially for you?”

But let George Herbert say it, who puts it in such a sublimely expressive way that all I need do is transcribe the two remaining stanzas. And so (bringing things up to speed, as it were), no sooner has Jesus drawn “nearer to me, sweetly questioning, / If I lacked any thing,” than the soul once more recoils, replying:

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
    Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, 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 marred 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.

There you have it — 18 lines of the most exquisite poetry. And what a smash ending Herbert provides with that unexpected, unscripted surrender: “My dear, then I will serve.” It is what Aristotle would call peripety, which is a moment of sheer dramatic reversal, or turning point, which no one, perhaps not even the writer himself, could have foreseen. A leap right off the page. 

Unless, of course, it is God himself who is turning the page. It is, after all, his play, why shouldn’t he be writing it? So, let him orchestrate the details of the drama. And it is very much a drama, an exchange fraught with high dramatic tension between the soul, sunk in misery and ruin, and God, who longs more than we’ll ever know to rescue the soul, lifting it unto heights of sheerest eucharistic intimacy. “You must sit down, says Love,” in the most wonderfully peremptory way, “and taste my meat…” In other words, for the meal to take place at all, the soul must actually agree to become the guest, indeed, the guest most ardently sought after by the host. 

So I did sit and eat. 

Behind the metaphor of the meal, therefore, which Herbert has placed at the heart of his poem, there is this other meal, the original Passover Supper itself, arranged by God for the evening before his Son is scheduled to die. Christ thereby becoming the perfect Victim who will, on that Friday we call Good, literally bear the world’s blame. And it will be at that Last Supper that Jesus will institute the saving Sacrament of his Body and Blood, enjoining upon his disciples until the end of time, not to forget anything done that night because by a singular grace they are to continue doing it until the world’s own end. 

Do this in memory of me.