Recently there was an exhibition of stained glass at Salisbury Cathedral and Sarum College. A conversation with one of the artists revealed how much his own life and faith was expressed in his work. George Herbert’s poem 'The Windows' explores a similar link: in this case, between the preacher and his work as a communicator of Christian faith. For the preacher too is something of an artist.
The poem follows the pattern of the previous poems 'Church-lock and key' and 'The Church-floor' in the sense that each links aspects of the external church building with the internal heart of the Christian. Life and practice must go together: if they do not, there is no harmony and no integrity.
To appreciate how important the preacher’s integrity was for Herbert, it is worth reading his essay on 'The Parson Preaching' in 'A Priest to the Temple'. The pulpit is the preacher’s joy and throne, he gains the attention of his listeners by 'all possible art', the character of his sermon is 'holiness; he is not witty, or learned, or eloquent, but holy'. Every word needs to be 'heart deep': holy words and holy life belong together: there cannot be one without the other.
The parson is called to care for his flock and that care is woven into his sermons to make them 'exceeding reverend and holy'. It is interesting that Herbert takes St. Paul as his model, and quotes from Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians. For it is in these letters that the images of glass can be found. (1 Cor. 13:12 and 2 Cor. 3:18).
The first verse of the poem begins with a familiar question by the poet. How can man in all his frailty reflect God in all his glory? The preacher is flawed like 'brittle crazie glasse', but it is through that very glass that God will be viewed.
Stained glass windows often tell stories. Herbert would have seen the glorious richly coloured and expressive windows of Westminster Abbey and Cambridge colleges. After the glass was painted, it would have been heated to fix the colours – annealed. So the inner life of the preacher must shine with the rich colour of the life of God. Only that richness will win the hearer. The hearer will not be won by life and words which are 'watrish, bleak, and thin'.
The third and final verse stresses the balance that needs to be found, and contains echoes of the Book of Common Prayer, where the prayer for church leaders is that 'they may both by their life and doctrine set forth thy true and lively Word'.
The poet might have put equal weight on the importance of life and words coming together and finding integrity, but the poem ends with more weight being put on the emptiness of words without the backing of a holy life. Without the latter, the words do not penetrate to the inner heart and conscience so have the effect of a flare or firework which might momentarily fizz and crackle with life but will quickly vanish.'.
We say to preachers (as preachers do to themselves) practise what you preach. In this poem Herbert is saying the same thing, but with rather more elegance.
Back to Our Archives