I wasn’t looking for George Herbert when I found him in the basement of a used book store two blocks down from the Eagle and Child. I was, predictably for an Inklings devotee, looking for C.S. Lewis. It was a gray, rainy afternoon in Oxford, and I was on the hunt for a copy of The Great Divorce to give as a Christmas present to a friend. I ducked into the dusty two-story shop, shaking the rain from my hair. Like every other Oxford bookstop except Blackwell’s and the Bodleian Library, Lewis was nowhere to be found.
“Ah, Lewis and Tolkien sell like hotcakes here,” the clerk told me. His eyes twinkled behind tortoise shell hipster glasses. He looked like a quintessentially British hybrid of Uncle Diggory and John Lennon. I sighed. I suppose it’s nice to know the old mythmakers’ magic still hangs around this place, despite the inconvenience. I headed downstairs. Rockstar Uncle Diggory was right—no Lewis and no Tolkien, not even in the religion section.
A half-second before I turned to leave, I caught a glimpse of a slim black spine with neon lettering, its title cracked in half by years of use. George Herbert, Selected by W.H. Auden, Penguin’s Poet to Poet Series. I remembered Herbert’s name through a hazy English mist. Did someone mention him at an Ichthus meeting last fall? Or was it the pastor at the YouTube Easter service this spring? Was Herbert even the Christian poet I was thinking of, or was it Gerard Manley Hopkins? Six months of coronavirus quarantine, and memories start running together like watercolors. I shrugged and plucked the volume off the shelf.
Heark, how the birds do sing
And woods do ring.
All creatures have their joy: and man hath his.
Yet if we rightly measure,
Man’s joy and pleasure
Rather hereafter, then in present, is.
George Herbert was born in Wales in 1593. At age sixteen, he enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge, with the idea of becoming a priest. Time and chance had different plans. A few years into his studies, he was appointed the University’s Public Orator and caught the king’s attention with his rhetorical skill. James I whisked Herbert away to Parliament, where he wordsmithed for dueling politicians until the king’s death in 1625. Abandoning his secular ambitions, Herbert retired to a church ten miles south of Stonehenge, where he served local parishioners until his own death by consumption in 1633. It was there that he wrote the poetry I found in the basement of the Oxford book shop 387 years later.
To this life things of sense
Make their pretence:
In th’ other Angels have a right by birth:
Man ties them both alone,
And makes them one,
With th’ one hand touching heavn’n, with the other earth.
Reading Herbert’s story in 2020, I find it hard not to relate. His life took a drastically different course from anything he could have expected. He went into university with a plan and had to watch, all but helpless, as circumstances threw that plan outside the window—and threw the man who wanted to be a priest into the lion’s den of secular striving. An orator and poet, he lived a life of the mind and died of a disease of the body. He might have expected to nurture his parishioners’ souls into old age. Instead, he passed away at age thirty-three. Herbert is a witness to the split every person must straddle between intention and action, mind and body. In his poetry and in his life, he struggled with this paradox of being a creature made from both spirit and flesh—“Man’s Medley,” as he calls it in the Penguin collection. What does it mean to be human, the one creature in all creation who ties together both heaven and earth, alone?
In soul he mounts and flies
In flesh he dies.
He weares a stuffe whose thread is coarse and round,
And should take place
After the trimming, not the stuffe and ground.
Before I read Herbert, and certainly before I lived through the coronavirus pandemic, I thought man’s medley was simply a Christian interpretation of the Cartesian split between mind and body. In my thinking, “spirit” covered res cogitans: everything invisible, intellectual, heavenly, and eternal. “Flesh,” on the other hand, covered res extensa: everything tangible, earthly, physical, and temporary. I layered the contrast with sensory impressions I borrowed from Books II and III Paradise Lost; the red-black bogs Satan tramps through on his journey from Hell to Earth, and the airy white light that blinds us when Milton tries to peak into Heaven.
In us, the fallen humans, these forces of spirit and flesh war against each other with the intensity St. Paul describes in Galatians 4. But they find perfect unification in the person of Christ, the Godhead made human, born of the Lord’s Spirit and a woman’s body 2,020 years ago. And this same incarnate God, who sanctified our flesh even as he gave us a new Spirit, promises to clothe us in new bodies when he remakes the new Heavens and new Earth. Until that day, I thought, the task of all men caught in the mind-body medley is to discipline our flesh, like St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, until it submits to the will of our spirit.
Not that he may not here
Taste of the cheer,
But as birds drink, and straight lift up their head,
So he must sip and think
Of better drink
He may attain to, after he is dead.
This dichotomy I sketched between mind and matter captures an important piece of the truth. But it was only after 2020 that I realized how easily this simple picture lulled me into a false sense of control. Even as I believed Augustine’s confession that man can do nothing apart from God, I still envisioned the “flesh”—that part of me still stuck in this world—as something mostly under my own power. In hindsight, this thought makes sense. It’s easy to believe we can put our mind over our matter if by “matter” we only mean our bodies. If “the flesh” is simply our baser instincts, our greed and selfishness, our physical desires, it’s something we can easily tell ourselves we can rein in with puritanical discipline. I might need God’s help in exercising that discipline, and I might need his grace when I fail, but so long as the scope of “the flesh” is limited to my own body, it feels like something that falls within my jurisdiction. Indeed, one of the longstanding myths of Christian culture, especially in the United States, is that God owes something to the believers who best exercise this ascetic ethic. God owes me social esteem if my actions demonstrate my righteousness, or material prosperity if I sing his praises on Sundays, or good relationships if I abstain from sexual sin. All I have to do is beat my body into upholding its end of the bargain.
But this year has forced me to rethink the scope of “the flesh.” The coronavirus pandemic—and the economic, social, and political fallout that has come from our attempts to contain it—has forced everyone to think outside ourselves. The virus is both a personal and a global threat; it jeopardizes my own body, the bodies of everyone around me, and the national and international body politic. Now—as we see in lockdown laws and social restrictions and regulations around wearing masks and using hand sanitizer—what we do with our own flesh has consequences far outside ourselves. And what happens to our own flesh depends to a startling degree on what everyone else decides to do with theirs.
The pandemic, in an important way, has been a crisis of control. How much of my own health is in the hands of my roommates, my neighbors, the people I sit next to in the subway, the people an ocean away who break quarantine rules and cause a Covid-19 outbreak that causes my governor to impose travel restrictions that keep me from seeing my family at Christmas? How much of a say do I have over where I study this afternoon, where I work for the next six months, how I start a career or support a family? Who gets to decide whether I contract coronavirus, consumption, or a cold?
But as his joys are double;
So is his trouble.
He hath two winters, other things but one:
Both frosts and thoughts do nip,
And bite his lip;
And he of all things fears two deaths alone.
Suddenly my flesh isn’t the only thing that seems temporary and intractable. It’s also the circumstances outside my control—circumstances that shape my day-to-day life and mold the ideas, priorities, plans, and actions that determine who I’ll be in the future. How much control do I really have over who that person will be? Being human is not just about wrestling with our fleshly desires, trying to bend our character into a holy shape. It’s also about wrestling with just how little power we have over whatever shape that character takes—how much of our projects, personalities, and relationships we owe to contingencies. A king might whisk us to Parliament, or a pandemic might lock us in our homes, and the way that we serve God and love others is going to change as a result. If we really are a creature caught between heaven and earth, we have to come to peace with the fact that we don’t get the final say in anything—and even if we did, would it really be “our say” if it were the circumstances outside our power that made it such?
Yet ev’n the greatest griefs
May be reliefs,
Could he but take them right, and in their ways.
Happie is he, whose heart
Hath found the art
To turn his double pains to double praise.
It’s sobering to realize how far the scope of “the flesh” extends beyond our control. We don’t simply live in a fickle, rebellious, obstreperous body; we live in a fickle, rebellious, obstreperous world. We are caught in swells of grief and trouble, like a sailor on a rickety lifeboat tossed into a storm at sea. Who are we to shout at the waves, demanding they bend to our will as our own hands and feet do?
But in the midst of these griefs, we can take solace where George Herbert found it, in the Savior who commands even the winds and waves. Surely God has shaped the circumstances that shape us, in the midst of Parliaments and pandemics, and surely, he promises peace to those who praise him in the storm. He has prepared in advance the good works for us to do, even if those works take us in directions we cannot now foresee, or even desire. We might say grace makes room for serendipity in seemingly random circumstances. And if we can learn to take the chaos in its way, as occasion for trust instead of trembling, we can praise God for the rainy days, the double pains, and the chance to find new poets in the basement of old book shops.
Lauren Spohn ’20 is a former editor-in-chief of the Ichthus and is currently in the first year of her Rhodes Scholarship at Wadham College, Oxford.