Friday, February 20, 2015

Starting the Lenten Journey

Sin’s Round
By George Herbert (1593-1633, commemorated February 27)

Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am,
That my offences course it in a ring.
My thoughts are working like a busy flame,
Until their cockatrice they hatch and bring:
And when they once have perfected their draughts,
My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts.

My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts,
Which spit it forth like the Sicilian hill.
They vent their wares, and pass them with their faults,
And by their breathing ventilate the ill.
But words suffice not, where are lewd intentions:
My hands do join to finish the inventions.

My hands do join to finish the inventions:
And so my sins ascend three stories high,
As Babel grew, before there were dissentions.
Let ill deeds loiter not: for they supply
New thoughts of sinning:
wherefore, to my shame,
Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am.

In this poem, Herbert makes a “round” by connecting each stanza through repeated lines, and by ending the poem with its beginning. In so doing, he shows the obsessive, self-referring character of sin that traps us in a life of frustration, degradation, and (ultimately) despair. 

Using images of destructive and futile imaginings (“cockatrice’s eggs”), Mt. Etna’s seething, poisonous fumes (“Sicilian hill”), and pride leading to chaos (“As Babel grew…”), Herbert creates a finely-wrought miniature study of the sinful, willful, and passion-bound inner life without God’s loving, healing grace. This poem invites us to put our own sinful behaviors and selfish attitudes in the place of Herbert's list, learning anew what "sin's round" is like in our own life.

On Ash Wednesday we began Lent in penitential sorrow—sorrow for the sins, the indifference, the cruelty that marks all life apart from God’s will. On that day, we took the formal step of confessing the truth of our diminished life, making the first steps on the trail of humility and honesty that leads back to wholeness and joy. Early Lent is focussed on such clear-eyed examination of our character and life. It is a necessary step: avoid it, and Lent dissolves into utter hypocrisy. Embrace it, and the fog of self-deception begins to lift by God's illuminating, purifying grace.

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