Just FYI, I discovered a newly published book called A Year with George Herbert: A guide to 52 of his best-loved poems. The poem for today and many others are included there with great insight. I think the structure will not only help us read Herbert better, but learn to read poetry better. Speaking of reading poetry, before reading my reflections on the below poem, read through it yourself maybe 5 or 6 times, let it soak in, visualize what you read, pray between readings…join me in enjoying these devotions to our God!
Herbert’s second poem making up the entire collection is called “The Altar.” It was originally written in a shape much like that shown above, reflecting a stylized altar. My favorite thing about the poem is the intentional mixing of the stone metaphor. Obviously, an altar is made of stones, and this one being built in the poem is made from a stony, hard heart. And this picture of building an altar from the pieces of a stony heart, these pieces being cemented together in their final form by tears, is just beautiful! So, on the one hand, the current state of the stony heart, being hardened to God, is a bad thing.
On the other hand, Herbert prays that God, the only one with the ability to shape/cut such a stone as a stony heart, would indeed do a work in him. Making these stones like those stones that will cry out worship to Christ, even if God’s children won’t.
So, in the end, Herbert says, “Only You, God, can fix this stony heart which is so hardened,” but in a twist, Herbert doesn’t ask that his stony heart become soft and flesh, but instead uses another stone as a metaphor for that softened heart. Basically saying, “Make by stony heart (in the bad sense of stone) into a stony heart (in the good sense). Build such as altar out of my heart that it cannot cease to cry out with praise!” And Herbert’s final prayer in the final lines make this explicit, asking that the sacrifice of Christ would be that transforming act which makes his heart as holy, sacred space (an altar) for God.
What else stands out to you? Any words or phrases that really stick out to you?