By Philomena Post
October 19, 2011
Have you ever volunteered for a task you thought should be easy, then found that it came up sooner than you expected and was more difficult than you expected? Of course you have – we all have! That’s the situation I find myself in as I write this.
On Sunday, I offered to write a reflection for this website, thinking that I’d have a week or two to come up with something inspiring, touching, and perhaps even witty to say about my Fellowship experience. Well, I’ve been asked to do it in two days, and nothing meeting the above criteria has yet come to mind. So much for the English teacher’s alleged facility with words!
But I’m OK, because I have plenty of help. My helpers are: the Holy Spirit, Whom I trust to guide my thoughts and words, and George Herbert (1599-1633), whose poetic muse has enriched my life for almost 40 years.
Herbert was rector of a small Anglican parish in Bremerton, England. He had hoped for a political career, but changing times and politics led him to pursue the ministry instead of a place at Court. Since the Newman Fellowship has sprouted from the same roots, Herbert’s poetry is especially resonant for me these days. So, shifting into English teacher mode, I’ll let Herbert speak to us in one of his amazing emblematic or “pattern“ poems, written in 1633:
A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears
Made of a heart, and cemented with tears;
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool hath touched the same.
A HEART alone
Is such a stone
That nothing but
Thy power doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise they Name,
That, if I chance to hold my peace
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O, let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.
The poem visualizes an altar. The reference to the “workman’s tool” is an allusion to Exodus 20:25 – your assignment is to look it up. As we read (and reread) the poem, we realize that the stones of the altar are both physical features and a symbol for God’s process of perfecting our lives. Its “conceit,” or ruling metaphor, indicts us for having “hearts of stone.” Our hearts, like the stone, can only be “cut” and made fit for use by the Lord Himself. Whether the altar is in a church or a college music room, we are being cut and formed for God’s work. Our journey doesn’t require Gothic revival décor, only faith. We carry the altar in our hearts. And it’s in our own hearts that we must hear, and do our best to obey, the directives the Holy Spirit sends us. We can offer Christ the best and worst of ourselves on that altar: He accepts both. An Indian monk once told his students, “The heart is the hub of all sacred places – go there and roam.” I’ve only just begun to perceive my own heart’s need to expand with love and trust despite the hurt, anger, and disappointment that contend for space there. “Walking” through my own heart has awakened me to both my own pettiness and my untapped capacity for love. May our heart-altars be well-tended and ready for whatever we may find as we roam with Our Blessed Lord as our guide.
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