Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
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Revisiting "Gratefulness"

Revisiting "Gratefulness"

George Herbert, 1639

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Hello, Friends. We bring to you a “revisit” of the beautiful George Herbert poem that we sent out one year ago, with audio attached for all everyone today. Most of our subscribers have not seen this post before. But a great poem is ever new and ever true, worth reading again and again.

Tony is not well at the moment, as a result of a chronic health problem which debilitates him from time to time. He is resting, and we hope that this bout will be milder than usual. We thank you for your patience and ask for your prayers. May God bless you all with a very Happy Thanksgiving! — Debra

What does the Lord want from us, in return for His gifts?

That’s not exactly the question you’d ask if you were a pagan Greek. You’d ask what the gods wanted from you, so that they would give you what you wanted in return. And if anything, the Greek gods were a sunny lot. They weren’t like the gods of the businessmen in Tyre and Sidon, who wanted human sacrifice. But they did want the right hymns, and the god Dionysus did get his special seat in the theater at the great festival in Athens, when the playwrights put on their shows.

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God wants nothing from us, and everything — it all depends on how you look at it. He exacts the payment of gratitude: a grateful heart. But that’s nothing at all! Not a sheep or an ox, a field or a temple, not flesh or blood, or sacks of gold, but what anyone can pay in full in the bright glow of love. And yet since God gives us our very beings, true gratitude can’t be a smile and a nod, and then we go about our business as if God were a bellboy we have just flipped a coin to. Love calls for love, and true love does not spare.

That is why the poet George Herbert, an Anglican minister and a wise guide for us in our own spiritual lives, begs the Lord in our poem this week for yet another gift beyond all the gifts He has given to him already. The beggar begs for a grateful heart. And he does it with a kind of sly beggarly confidence, saying — quite rightly — that unless the Lord gives him that grateful heart, all the rest of his gifts will have gone for nothing. So he knocks on the door, he weeps, he groans, confiding in the words of the Lord, that “to him who has much, more will be given,” and what is more, here, is everything indeed. For gratitude ushers man into the very life of God Himself, a life of complete self-gift and love. From nothing were we made, and Herbert’s groan, a kind of nothing, interpreted by love, is a sweet “country air.” In the end, the really grateful heart is not just looking for what happens to please it, as if the gifts of the Lord “had spare days,” so that you sing your gratitude only when the sun is shining warm and clear. The grateful heart need not, in the end, utter a single word, or make a single groan, or shed a single tear. Its soft pulse, regular, steady, and quiet, is the praise of God.

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Thou that hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.
See how thy beggar works on thee
                                              By art.

He makes thy gifts occasion more,
And says, If he in this be crossed,
All thou hast given him heretofore
                                              Is lost.

But thou didst reckon, when at first
Thy word our hearts and hands did crave,
What it would come to at the worst
                                              To save.

Perpetual knockings at thy door,
Tears sullying thy transparent rooms,
Gift upon gift, much would have more,
                                              And comes.

This notwithstanding, thou wentst on,
And didst allow us all our noise:
Nay, thou hast made a sigh and groan
                                              Thy joys.

Not that thou hast not still above
Much better tunes than groans can make;
But that these country-airs thy love
                                              Did take.

Wherefore I cry, and cry again;
And in no quiet canst thou be,
Till I a thankful heart obtain
                                              Of thee:

Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart whose pulse may be
                                              Thy praise.

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“Grace,” Photograph by Eric Enstrom. Public Domain.

Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.

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