The Domestic Servants of the King of Heaven
Have you ever worried that you were choosing the wrong career path? Have you ever had friends and relatives trying to put you off your chosen path because they think it’s a waste of your talents? This can be particularly the case for those who feel called to serve God in some way. A call to ordination, for example, can feel like financial doom for those expected to earn high salaries in high-flying professions. Even though money is often the last thing on the minds of those with a vocation, it can still be an issue for loved ones and dependants. And the social standing of a church minister today can seem very low indeed compared to past centuries. At least, that’s what I had assumed. But reading the life of the great poet and priest George Herbert, I was amazed to find him with exactly the same problems – in 1625!
I picked up a beautiful copy of The Works of George Herbert for just a few pence, published by Frederick Warne and Co as one of their ‘Chandos Classics’ range. There’s no date, but it looks around 1880s to me. Now, I love looking in the back of old books to see the lists of the publishers’ other publications, many long forgotten. Along with the names of the great and the good that we are familiar with, there are often amusing names and eccentric titles, plus many examples that show how much we have changed in our interests and habits, as individuals and as a society. In this book, for example, the publisher’s list in the back advertises Manners and Tone of Good Society; or Solecisms to be Avoided, Society Small Talk; or, What to Say, and When to Say It, as well as Party Giving on Every Scale; or, The Cost of Entertainments, and The Management of Servants: a Practical Guide to the Routine of Domestic Service, all written by ‘A Member of the Aristocracy’.
All of these subjects would have been very familiar to the subject of the book itself, George Herbert, although three centuries earlier. He came from a wealthy, aristocratic background, gained a top job at Cambridge University, became a Member of Parliament, and was feted at the Court of King James I for his brilliance. He seemed cut out to be the highest of high flyers at a very young age. But then disaster. Two of his most powerful friends and supporters at Court died, then King James I himself, “and with them all Mr Herbert’s Court hopes”, so Izaak Walton tells us in this biography. So Herbert went to a friend’s house in Kent to retreat for a while and seek God about his future – whether to try again the “painted pleasures of Court life, or betake himself to a study of divinity, and enter into sacred orders.” He was at first very conflicted. A friend at Court advised him not to go in for such a low-status job – Izaak Walton tells us that all his friends considered it “too mean an employment, and too much below his birth and the excellent abilities and endowments of his mind.”
But George Herbert was able to reply:
“It hath been formerly adjudged that the domestic servants of the King of heaven should be of the noblest families on earth; and though the iniquity of the late times have made clergymen meanly valued, and the sacred name of priest contemptible, yet I will labour to make it honourable by consecrating all my learning, and all my poor abilities, to advance the glory of that God that gave them; knowing that I can never do too much for Him that hath done so much for me as to make me a Christian. And I will labour to be like my Saviour, by making humility lovely in the eyes of all men, and by following the merciful and the meek example of my dear Jesus.”
He was deaconed then made prebendary of Layton Ecclesia, a village near Spaldon in Huntingdonshire, in the diocese of Lincoln in 1626, and priested and made Rector of Bemerton, Wiltshire, in 1630. Though opting for that ‘smaller‘ life that many of his contemporaries despised, Herbert’s writings and example of the love and service of God and his fellow humans have inspired millions. Deo Gloria.