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George Herbert, “Love (III)” from St. James Cathedral, Seattle on Vimeo.


Love (III)
George Herbert
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.
Last week, we read Herbert’s poem on the Holy Scriptures, which prompted reflection on the Liturgy of the Word at Mass. With today’s poem by Herbert, “Love,” we’ll reflect on the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Scott Webster will read the poem, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
This poem, like all of Herbert’s work, is rich in Scriptural allusion and full of evocative imagery. Herbert sets up an almost romantic scene, as the speaker is invited in for a meal by Love, but draws back, before being urged to come in and eat. Think of the Song of Songs, the great love poem of the Bible, which describes a similar encounter between love and the lover at the gate, coming close and then moving away. Of course, meals have great resonance in the New Testament. Think of the miraculous feedings and the Last Supper accounts. Think of some of the parables of the Second Coming: “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them” (Luke 12:37).
Herbert imagines what that moment would be like, when Love—which is, of course, another name for God—becomes the servant, waiting at table. And he finds it very uncomfortable. The speaker of the poem hangs back in the doorway, “guilty of dust and sin.” It’s an odd phrase, “guilty of dust.” Herbert is alluding to original sin—the propensity to sin that is part of our human condition. This awareness of sin pulls him back as soon as he is invited into the divine presence. It’s a pattern in the Scriptures, whenever someone encounters God. Think of the prophet Isaiah, or St. Peter after the miraculous catch—“depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
The speaker inches forward, then draws back. At the same time, there is a wonderful intimacy in the language used – “ah, my dear,” he says to Love, “I cannot look on thee.” This is not the meeting of strangers, but of intimate friends. Love does not brush away the speaker’s concerns, or say that there has been no sin or wrongdoing; instead, Love reminds the speaker simply that God is God: “who made the eyes but I?” Sinful though we are, we were made for this – our eyes were made to look at God.
In the last stanza, the speaker continues to hang back. “Let my shame / Go where it doth deserve.” Even that is no argument, Love says, because Love has already borne “the blame.” The cross has taken away everything that would prevent us from approaching God. The speaker is running out of excuses! “My dear, then I will serve,” he says: you sit down—let me serve you. It’s Peter’s response to Jesus’ washing of the feet. But that is not what Love has in mind. “You must sit down and taste my meat.” Love is going to do the serving here. It is for love to give, for us to receive. At last, in the final, and shortest line of the poem, the speaker gives in: “so I did sit and eat.” The sinner lets go and Love prevails.  I am reminded of the words of the great 13th century mystic St. Catherine of Siena: “By this light I shall come to know that you, eternal Trinity, are table and food and waiter for us.”
As I mentioned last week, we have begun a Year of the Eucharist in this local Church, the Archdiocese of Seattle. For me, Herbert’s “Love” is the perfect meditation on this central mystery of our faith. If you think of the pattern of the Mass, it is not unlike this poem. We have come to the table at God’s invitation, but again and again we pause and acknowledge our sinfulness. “Lord, have mercy.” “Forgive us our trespasses.” “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” We do not do this to beat ourselves up or prove anything. We do this because this awareness of our own sinfulness is the natural human response to being in the presence of God!  Throughout the Mass, Love is leading us to the table, where all we can do is receive the free gift of the God of love. There is no earning this gift. As Archbishop Etienne said in his homily at the beginning of this special year of the Eucharist, “we can be deceived in thinking that the Eucharist is what we do. It’s what God does. It’s the work of God upon us. It’s the work of God for our redemption.” (Read or listen to that homily here: http://www.nwcatholic.org/news/local/year-of-the-eucharist-begins-in-archdiocese-of-seattle.html) All we need to do—all we really can do—is what the speaker of Herbert’s poem does: respond to the invitation, and let God work in us.



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804 Ninth Avenue
Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303