I Throw Me At His Feet: A Reading of George Herbert’s “The Priesthood”

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As I discern my own vocation, George Herbert’s poem, The Priesthood, has helped me to understand the sacrament of ordination.

Sacraments of the Church

The catechism of the ACNA describes five different rites and institutions as “sacraments of the church” (see To Be A Christian, #124). These differ from the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion which were established by Jesus and are sometimes referred to as “sacraments of the Gospel” (TBAC, #123). Unlike those two sacraments, “the sacraments of the church…arose from the practices of the apostles and the Early Church, or were blessed by God in scripture.” These are confirmation, ordination, marriage, absolution, and the anointing of the sick (TBAC, #125).

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As someone who is beginning the process of ordination, I have been thinking about what it means for ordination to be a “sacrament of the church.” The church has historically viewed sacraments as being “outward, visible sign(s) of an inward, invisible grace” (TBAC, #125). Baptism and Holy Communion function as physical signs that point to Jesus’ salvific work in our lives. But what is the invisible grace that ordination points to? What does a sacramental understanding of ordination mean for me and for the people that I hope to serve?

The Priesthood According to Herbert

As I have thought about these questions, I have grown to really appreciate a poem written by a 17thcentury Anglican priest and poet named George Herbert. This poem, which is titled “The Priesthood,” has helped me understand the sacramental nature of ordination and has increasingly become a deep comfort to me as I discern my calling alongside my local church. In this article, I will analyze Hebert’s poem by stanzas. Some may prefer to read the whole poem first.

Desire & Inadequacy

Herbert begins his poem by expressing his deep desire to serve God as a priest in the church.

Blest order, which in power dost so excel,
That with th’ one hand thou liftest to the sky,
And with the other throwest down to hell
In thy just censures; fain would I draw nigh,
Fain put thee on, exchanging my lay-sword
     For that of th’ holy Word.

For Herbert, the authority of the priesthood is expressed through discernment and righteous judgment. The priest spiritually elevates, “liftest to the sky,” what is holy; he also spiritually condemns, “throwest down to hell,” what is unholy. In this manner, the priest is “like God” and discerns between “good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). But in contrast to the serpent who deceitfully claims that this authority can be achieved by disobedience to God, Herbert’s desire for this authority is characterized by holy obedience. Herbert’s “fain” desire to wield this authority stems from a godly ambition to expand God’s kingdom. In becoming a priest, Herbert would become a knight of the faith, “exchanging [his] lay sword / For that of th’ holy Word,” reading and deploying the scriptures unto salvation.

Despite his devotion and godly ambition, Herbert immediately describes his inadequacy to fulfill this holy office.

But thou art fire, sacred and hallowed fire;
And I but earth and clay: should I presume
To wear thy habit, the severe attire
My slender compositions might consume,
I am both foul and brittle; much unfit
     To deal in holy Writ.

Herbert’s spiritual inadequacy lies in the frailty of his material being. He is merely “earth and clay” whereas the priesthood is a vocation of “sacred and hallowed fire.” To be a priest is to be in service to the One who “is a consuming fire” as the author of Hebrews notes, and the spiritual weightiness of this vocation is too much for Herbert to physically bear (Hebrews 12:29). His nature is “foul and brittle,” and he fears that holiness would consume him. Like Isaiah who sees himself as “a man of unclean lips,” Herbert sees himself as spiritually unqualified to stand before God as His servant (Isaiah 6:5). By his own self-examination, he is “unfit to deal in holy Writ.”

Fire Reforming Earth

But Herbert recalls another characteristic of fire that differs from the one he fears:

Yet have I often seen, by cunning hand
And force of fire, what curious things are made
Of wretched earth. Where once I scorned to stand,
That earth is fitted by the fire and trade
Of skillful artists, for the boards of those
     Who make the bravest shows.

Fire is not merely destructive, but it is also transformative. By the “force of fire…curious things are made of wretched earth.” The “skillful artist” by means of “fire and trade” uses the earth and shapes it into something beautiful. It is the artist’s power to transform the earth and not the quality of the earth that matters.

This causes Herbert to pause his self-loathing and reflect on the nature of Earth itself. Despite his initial perception of the “wretchedness” of the earth, he comes to recognize the earth as being the source that provides life and sustenance.

But since the great ones, be they ne’er so great,
Come from the earth, from whence those vessels come;
So that at once both feeder, dish, and meat
Have one beginning and one final sum,
I do not greatly wonder at the sight
     If earth in earth delight.

Life comes from the earth, is sustained by things of the earth, and eventually returns to the earth. As Hebert states, “…both feeder, dish, and meat/Have one beginning and one final sum…”. Herbert has come to realize that the earth is not so much wretched insomuch as it is inherently finite. The “great ones” of the earth are “ne’er so great” because ultimately, they are limited by their earthly nature.

Rather than lamenting this finitude, Herbert comes to accept this as being a natural part of life. Herbert has come to same conclusion as the author of Ecclesiastes who believes it is “…good and fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun…” (Ecclesiastes 5:18). It is only fitting that those who come from the earth should enjoy the finite pleasures of the earth. Thus, Herbert does “not greatly wonder at the sight/If earth in earth delight.”

Herbert eventually comes to appreciate how God graciously uses the earth to accomplish His divine purposes especially as it pertains to Holy Communion.

But th’ holy men of God such vessels are,
As serve him up, who all the world commands:
When God vouchsafeth to become our fare,
Their hands convey him, who conveys their hands.
O what pure things, most pure must those things be,
     Who bring my God to me!

God, by divine and sacred mystery, “vouchsafeth to become our fare.” Through the earthly means of Holy Communion, God becomes present in a profound way. The creator of the universe becomes mysteriously present to his people by entering the physical limitations of earthly matter. Heaven and earth meet in a profound and glorious way, and the priest has the sacred duty to “convey him, who conveys their hands” through the consecration and distribution of the bread and wine. Truly, only one with clean hands and a pure heart can ascend the hill of the Lord and accomplish such ends.

Prostrate Before the Lord

Once again, Herbert is overwhelmed by this requirement of purity, and he recognizes his current inadequacy to fulfill such a role. But instead of choosing to wallow in his previous self-loathing, he chooses to rely upon God’s transforming work.

Wherefore I dare not, I, put forth my hand
To hold the Ark, although it seem to shake
Through th’ old sins and new doctrines of our land.
Only, since God doth often vessels make
Of lowly matter for high uses meet,
     I throw me at his feet.

Here we see Herbert adjusting his mindset from personal denigration to one of humble receptivity. He throws himself, his “lowly matter,” before God, “at his feet” that God might accomplish the spiritual transformation necessary for the “high uses” of the priesthood.

It is no accident that Herbert’s language, “I throw me at his feet,” alludes to the ordinand’s act of prostration in the liturgical service of ordination. The ordinand completely lies face down before the bishop as a symbolic act that one’s life is being transformed and dedicated to the work that God has given the ordinand to do.

Even as Herbert moves to the conclusion of the poem, he lingers on this moment of prostration:

There will I lie, until my Maker seek
For some mean stuff whereon to show his skill,
Then is my time. The distance of the meek
Doth flatter power. Lest good come short of ill
In praising might, the poor do by submission
     What pride by opposition.

Like the ordinand, Herbert remains prostrate before the Lord as long as the “maker” desires. Thus the holiness required for the priesthood does not come by superseding earthly limitations. Rather, it comes by the power of God, who uses “mean stuff” to “show his skill.” Priests do not work by means of their own spiritual strength but do the work of “praising might” by their “submission.”  The priestly vocation is not seized in pride but rather exercised in humility.

The Sacrament of the Priesthood

The ACNA catechism states, “In ordination, God conveys the gift of the Holy Spirit for the office and work of the order being conferred” (TBAC, #141). It is the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that matters and not so much the capabilities of the individual. If we choose to believe that the work of the priesthood solely depends upon an individual’s qualifications, we limit our understanding of God’s transforming, sanctifying work. The vocation of the priesthood is a physical reminder to those who work in other vocations that it is God who empowers individuals to accomplish the spiritual work of his kingdom. This is what makes it sacramental.

The ordination process is long, humbling, and at times even grueling. As I take examinations and evaluations and share my life story with those in my local church, I take comfort in the merciful God who chooses to use people who are not perfect. People who struggle with inadequacy and sin yet daily repent and rely upon the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.

Published on

March 4, 2023

Author

Russell Vick

Russell Vick is currently the curate at Incarnation Anglican Church in South Arlington, VA, where he is undergoing the discernment process for holy orders.

View more from Russell Vick

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