Monday, May 5, 2014

Tossed to the Breast

When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottome lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.
George Herbert, The Pulley

Reflection – I’ve been wanting to include more poetry on this blog lately—I am a bit of a poetry geek (which is the geekiest of all geek categories—at least Tolkien geeks get swords!), and the Easter season (don’t forget it’s still Easter, right?) is a good time to have some beauty of language and imagery before us.

This Herbert poem shows up in the poetry appendix of the breviary, the precise function of which I have never been sure of. The appendix, that is, not the breviary. It has some truly lovely turns of phrase: ‘let him be rich and wearie… keep them in with repining restlesnesse… and rest in Nature, not the God of Nature: so both should losers be… weariness may tosse him to my breast.’

Underneath the fine poetry is a deep insight into the human condition and its meaning. With all the joys and goodness and manifest beauty and blessing of our world—as I write this it is a glorious spring morning outside my window, the sun pouring down on the grass and trees as if it only has so much time to do that, the birches positively glowing with reflected light—but with all that, we have ‘repining restlessness’.

We never quite are satisfied; we have a strange incapacity to just settle down and settle in. Some people experience this more acutely, some less so, but nobody I have ever met is quite free of it. I would argue, indeed, that much of the sexual chaos of our times that I have been discussing on the blog lately stems largely from our trying to use that aspect of our humanity to yield a rest and a fullness of being that it is not within its power to do.

St. Augustine said it first, and nobody has ever said it better: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

What strikes me in this is the profound gentleness and mercy of God. If you have the slightest awareness of the goodness, beauty, majesty, and awesome grandeur, exalted holiness, and absolute perfection of being and love that is this mystery we call God (for want of a better word), then it really is something to see how gracious He is to us.

We should run towards Him with eagerness and excitement. We should, automatically and obviously, make God and the things of God the first priority, the overriding concern, the total focus of every moment of every day. If you don’t see that, you don’t really know what is meant by the word ‘God’.

But of course, we don’t. We turn, so often, to God as a sort of desperate last resort, after and only after having exhausted every possible trick and turn of nature and our humanity, every possible way we can find to attain the rest and repose of our humanity, only after every other option has been tried and found wanting… then and only then, so often is the case, will we try God, not out of any great love for Him, but out of sheer ‘wearinesse’.

And God accepts that. He really does seem to want to spend eternity with us, I guess, and will take any movement from us in His direction, however pathetic and ungracious and even churlish and self-seeking it is on our part.

This basic level of human discontent and unhappiness, this strange restlessness of the human condition, is in fact the great gift of God’s mercy to us. He knows that it is the very nature of the Nature of Things that He and only He holds the fullness of being and thus happiness we need. So He makes it impossible for us to really be happy with anything less than Himself. And this is a gift, perhaps God’s greatest gift to us this side of heaven itself, the ‘pulley’ that draws us upwards almost against our wills, the hunger that no bread of earth can satisfy, the itch that can never be quite scratched, the light of mercy that draws us moth-like to its bright and life-giving flame.


  1. What a lovely poem and reflection to start the day. Thank you!

  2. Thank you Father! Your reflection enhances the poem.

  3. Fr Denis this reflection and poem is beautiful! Thank you for sharing. I am printing both out to read again : )


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