Vol I No. 7
From the Quarterly

Reflecting upon Lent

by William J. Martin


Doctrine and Poetry need not be opposed, the one all dry and abstracted, the other all warm and personal.  Doctrine is personal, it directs prayer to God in the right way, and clarifies thought about his nature. Poetry is a formal system of setting thought to words, teaching in a beautiful manner.  If intended to assist in prayer, poetry assists doctrine in deepening personal knowledge and reflection upon God.  George Herbert was a master in uniting the poetical and doctrinal in his poems, and here he instructs us that by the authority of the Church, and by the example of Christ, there is need to fast and give alms and temper the passions in Lent.


from The Temple (1633), by George Herbert:


Welcome deare feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authoritie,

But is compos’d of passion.

The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church sayes, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow

To ev’ry Corporation.

The humble soul compos’d of love and fear
Begins at home, and layes the burden there,

When doctrines disagree.

He sayes, in things which use hath justly got,
I am a scandall to the Church, and not

The Church is so to me.

True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,

When good is seasonable;

Unlesse Authoritie, which should increase
The obligation in us, make it lesse,

And Power itself disable.

Besides the cleannesse of sweet abstinence,
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,

A face not fearing light:

Whereas in fulnesse there are sluttish1  fumes,
Sowre exhalations, and dishonest rheumes2,

Revenging the delight.

Then those same pendant profits, which the spring
And Easter intimate, enlarge the thing,

And goodnesse of the deed.

Neither ought other mens abuse of Lent
Spoil the good use; lest by that argument

We forfeit all our Creed.

It’s true, we cannot reach Christ’s fortieth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,

Is better than to rest:

We cannot reach our Savior’s purity;
Yet are bid, Be holy ev’n as he.

In both let ‘s do our best.

Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one

That travelleth by-ways:

Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more

May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast

As may our faults control:

That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,

And among those his soul.

1 sluttish. Unclean; dirty; grimy; untidy.
2 rheumes. watery matter from eyes, nose, ears, etc.; said to cause disease.