A notable feature of the religious scene today is the outcropping of a passionate desire to intensify spiritual devotion. This desire seems strongest among young people, especially those known as the “Jesus people.” In part, the attempt to recover the Spirit stems from a reaction against a cold orthodoxy guilt of arid intellectualizing about the faith. The danger thus arises of divorcing the life of the spirit and the life of the mind, of cutting off devotion from learning.

To guard against this, we might well take a look at one of the finest exemplars of wholeness and balance in the spiritual life, the seventeenth-century English poet and divine George Herbert. Here is the devotional poet par excellence. Here is a man who gave up wealth, status, and fame to answer the call of God. Herbert came from one of England’s leading families. He became the public orator of Cambridge University and was apparently slated to become the nation’s secretary of state, but he gave all this up to become the rector of a tiny country parish in Bemerton. Such was the compelling power of his devotion that when Herbert crossed the lane from his home to pray in the church at regularly scheduled hours, the men working in the fields would stop their work and kneel in prayer, joining their parson in spirit. He became known throughout England as the Holy Mr. Herbert.

Herbert’s enduring devotional poetry is intentionally simple, so simple that some of his readers have concluded that he was a naïve rural parson. He was not, of course. Yet he did assiduously avoid the learned, allusive poetic style that his contemporaries Milton and Donne cultivated. And for good reason. Like the greatest and most learned of the apostles, St. Paul, he did not want to risk ...

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