To know God and to make Him known.

Man in the Moon, God in the Sun

On the flight into Raleigh to deliver my son to Mandala Fellowship, I shared with him the printout of a poem I had just discovered, “The Church-porch,” by George Herbert (1593-1633). It is the first of three parts of a larger work called The Temple. My son was impressed no less by his insights than by his manner of delivery. When we came through the gate in the Raleigh airport and saw 2nd Edition Booksellers, we stopped on a whim to check out the poetry section. To our astonishment, we found it! It became my parting gift of wisdom to my quadrivium-bound son.

“The Church-porch” counsels the young adult how to handle himself in the world. Herbert wrote it specifically for those who flee from didactic preaching. Poetry, Herbert said, may find its way to the heart of one who cannot or will not hear wisdom preached. The verses are rich in jewels of apt analogies. You can find the entire piece here. I have taken three counsels to heart: to feed on the true, beautiful, and good; to avoid common errors of parenting; to learn how to educate for nobility.

I direct my reader’s attention to stanzas 16 and 17:

O England! full of sin, but most of sloth;
Spit out thy phlegm, and fill thy breast with glory:
Thy Gentry bleats, as if thy native cloth
Transfused a sheepishness into thy story:

Not that they all are so; but that the most
Are gone to grass, and in the pasture lost.

This loss springs chiefly from our education.
Some till their ground, but let weeds choke their son:
Some mark a partridge, never their child’s fashion:
Some ship them over, and the thing is done.

Study this art, make it thy great design;
And if God’s image move thee not, let thine.1

To cough up spiritual phlegm and fill our lungs with refreshing air means we untether ourselves from the world’s worst and rise to meditate on the true, good, and beautiful. Meditate on the best so we think well; imitate the best so we live well. Herbert’s counsel to “fill thy breast with glory” echoes Paul’s words:

Finally, brothers and sisters,
whatever is true,
whatever is noble,
whatever is right,
whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely,
whatever is admirable—
if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—
think about such things.
Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me,
or seen in me—put it into practice.
And the God of peace will be with you (Phil. 4:8,9 NIV).

For me, this means paying less attention to the news. I became a news junky when I lived near Washington D.C., and I have had a habit of checking the news several times a day. The state of our nation is bad enough, but to slide into the comments on almost any news story will wash my mind with sludge that makes my deck slippery. For sure footing, I keep my eye on the news from afar, but try not to wreck on the rocks.

“Fill thy breast with glory” means studying the two books of revelation: creation and God’s Word. Psalm 19 tells us that both of these teach us profound things about God. I gain perspective when I push away from studies for some bicycling time under the sky. The same thing happens when I go through my three readings every morning. By reading daily in the books of Moses, the books of poetry and prophets, and the New Testament I get a bird’s-eye view of God’s work in history—very encouraging.

“Fill thy breast with glory” also means turning our focus from our shortcomings and sins, and resting instead on the One whose grace is abundantly supplied to us. This is big. What is your image of yourself? Do your thoughts go selectively to what you do poorly, to your unhelpful appetites, to your embarrassing moments? Is the default of your inner life to dwell on your earthy nature instead of your nature as image-bearer of God? Does it focus on what you have done rather than on what He has done, is doing, and will do in you? Let us fill our hearts with glory by dwelling on the true, good, and beautiful through Creation, the Bible, excellent reading, and meditation on who we are in Christ.

This poem also warns parents against common flaws. In the second stanza, Herbert describes three errors which parents are prone to make. Parents may prepare the soil of a child’s heart, but let distractions crowd out good seed. Parents may work hard to study their callings, but forget to study the nature of their child. Parents may deliver their child to others and call it done so they can focus on other things. When Herbert says “this loss springs chiefly from our education” he speaks in pre-Dewey wisdom that parents, not specialists, are responsible for raising their children. A nation falters, he says, because parents have settled for something less than true education. Wise parenting begets character in the next generation, so it in turn may parent wisely. All of this affects the community’s institutions and, therefore, the nation at large. What we do with our children reaches far and wide into the future.

Our calling is to educate our children into wisdom. If that is what you learned as a child, happy heritage! The rest of us fight a default of pragmatism—looking merely for what is useful. A true education is wisdom—not jobs, not comfort. The reason classical education focuses on dialogue is to help the student argue his way through his various thoughts, appetites, and convictions, so that he may order them rightly. A truly free adult has learned to love what he ought to love and not to love what is unworthy.

Lastly, the poem implores us to study the art of educating our children. How can we train our children into nobility? Herbert laments the gentry of his day, saying they act like so many sheep. In this country, no one is born into a position of authority; anyone can earn it through native gifts and hard work. Education of the whole soul is absolutely necessary, for who can rule wisely who has not learned to rule himself? Self-discipline is necessary for credible authority.

I come from a spiritual tradition that emphasizes the sinful nature of man and his need for redemption. However, I gravitate toward traditions that emphasize man, Imago Dei ("the image of God"), gifted with language, reason, emotion, creativity, and will. To develop these gifts in our children ensures that the world will continue to have reflected glory in the shadowlands. This is what fascinates me about the Greeks at their best: through discipline they developed the potential of man to astounding heights. They explored the nature of man—ultimately seeing him as a little lower than the angels. Today, our culture is not sure whether man is an animal or a little lower! The Greeks, as they studied man, came close to seeing the God reflected in him.

Therefore, those of us who see the man in the moon, as God in the sun—one a beautiful reflection of the surpassing glory of the other—do well to study how to raise our children into nobility. We can do this through good quality reading, both nonfiction and literature. Both give us something to chew on, as well as mentors to imitate. “Study this art; make it thy great design,” Herbert says. Study the best counsel and imitate the wisest men and women. Read regularly to feed your soul and make it ache for the true, good, and beautiful. Can you plan reading time into your schedule? My favorite lunch is anything with a side serving of book. Having only teens in the house means I can afford a sandwich-and-book lunch hour, and I use it to read books by the best, those who inspire me to think beyond the concrete. (Right now, these include: Poetic Knowledge, Beauty in the Word, Beauty Will Save the World, Beauty for Truth’s Sake, Norms and Nobility, and the George MacDonald fairy tales.)2 Writers Circle articles are lunch-sized bites of wisdom.

Parents, then, are images of God, prone to certain parenting errors, enjoined to focus on the true, good, and beautiful, and to learn the art of educating well. They—we—are able to grow in wisdom through meditation and imitation. Classical education tends to attract gifted, passionate people who want so much and sometimes find themselves in conflict between developing their own gifts and those of their children. We lose perspective and proportion. Herbert speaks to us later in the poem (stanza 56):

Pitch thy behavior low, thy projects high;
So shalt thou humble and magnanimous be:
Sink not in spirit: who aimeth at the sky,
Shoots higher much than he that means a tree.

A grain of glory mixed with humbleness
Cures both a fever and lethargicness.

I love that! I have felt both fever and despair. Here, lowliness and high-reaching run parallel. We draw our bow in humility, but aim far beyond the familiar ground at our feet. Let us keep this in mind this fall as we resume the school schedule and yearn to be sailing, writing a book, or studying the career we have put on hold. May the Lord cheer your way with torches of wisdom such as “The Church-porch.”

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1. Herbert, George. "The Church-porch" from The Temple. 1633. Web. 24 Aug. 2013. {http://www.logoslibrary.org/herbert/temple/porch1.html}

 2. For further study, I recommend Circe Institute's free audio, "A Contemplation of the Divine Image."

 

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