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If We Could Spell by Chad Engbers
This past spring, I took a group of students to George Herbert’s small parish church in Bemerton, a mile or two from Salisbury Cathedral. The 25 of us all but filled the tiny space, where we listened to a reading of a few Herbert poems before walking—as Herbert himself did—to Salisbury Cathedral.
That short hike took us past rural pastures, down a residential street, over rushing streams, into deep mud with barbed wire fences on either side, through torrential rain, and—finally—toward a rainbow stretching over the graceful spire of the cathedral.
During our visit to Herbert’s church, a woman read to us some of Herbert’s verse, and I was particularly moved by “The Flower,” a poem that inspired the altar cloth on the communion table in the church.
How fresh, oh Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! even as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.
The reader stopped here and moved on to a different poem, partly because “The Flower” is seven stanzas long, and partly because this first verse is what I call a “stanzalone”: it’s only one stanza of many, but it stands perfectly well on its own.
Herbert goes on to describe not only the sweet seasons of renewal, but also the bitter seasons of weakness and grief. “These are thy wonders, Lord of power,” he prays, observing that God freely and frequently changes life to death and vice versa. God’s sweet returns do not stand alone in our lives; it is God’s will and power to alternate them with bitter droughts.
By the last stanza, however, Herbert prays not to the “Lord of power” but to the “Lord of love”: “These are thy wonders, Lord of love, / To make us see we are but flowers that glide….”
Herbert challenges us to define the value of our lives in terms other than our own good and bad experiences. We say “life is good” when it feels good to us, and “bad” when it feels bad. In deceptively simple monosyllables, however, Herbert suggests that we really don’t get it. Our labels are wrong: “We say amiss, / This or that is,” he prays; “Thy word is all, if we could spell.”
Student essays sometimes impose a simple moral on this poem’s complicated claim. “Because Herbert is a good Christian with a strong faith, God loves him and gets him through the tough times.”
That’s not quite what Herbert is saying, though, is it? Herbert is suggesting that the tough times aren’t just seasons that God gets him through; they’re seasons that God gives him. They are—strangely, wonderfully—a gestures not only of God’s power but also of God’s love, sentences spelled out hour by hour in God’s inscrutable handwriting.
Our walk to Salisbury, I observed to students, was itself a kind of Herbert poem, and Herbert would likely read the entire journey—including the mud, the storm, and the barbed wire—as one great gift from God. Not just the rainbow at the end.
Easier said than done, of course, and easiest of all when you’re not actually down in the mud.
My mom was recently diagnosed with cancer. For a frustrating week and a half, scans showed that her body was full of metastasized cells, but doctors could not determine exactly what kind of cancer it was or from where it was originating. We knew just enough to raise all kinds of terrible, frightening possibilities.
Eventually, however, further tests revealed that it was a type of cancer that—although not curable—could be kept at bay with chemotherapy. My mom will live.
My mind immediately went to the first verse of “The Flower.” What a fresh, clean, sweet return!
Mom herself, however, has always grasped the whole point of this poem without ever having read it. Although she had all of the ordinary human responses to the mysterious news of her cancer, even in those first dark days of her diagnosis, she often returned matter of factly to the same phrase, usually offered with a humble smile: “It’s God’s plan.”
It’s one thing for me to write corrective comments on students’ readings of “The Flower,” quite another to live into its truth. This is, after all, not a truth that can fully be grasped by the head alone. Mom understands it with the fullness of her soul: not because some professor has explained it to her, but because she has always lived her life as if it were not really her own.
She has dedicated her life to her family, her friends, her church, and countless other organizations and communities—not so that she would one day be ready for cancer, but because she has sought to see God’s will be done. And here she is: tired, bewildered, understandably apprehensive about what’s next. And totally ready. Confident that God’s will is being done.
“Thy word is all, if we could spell,” prays Herbert. You can learn a great deal by watching a wise person handle suffering. One thing I have learned about Mom: she can spell.