HOLINESS on the head,
Light and perfection on the breast,
Harmonious bells below raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest.
Thus are true Aarons drest.
Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest:
Poor priest! thus am I drest.
Only another head
I have another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest:
In Him I am well drest.
Christ is my only head,
My alone only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me e'en dead;
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in Him new drest.
So holy in my Head,
Perfect and light in my dear Breast,
My doctrine tuned by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come, people; Aaron's drest.
-- George Herbert
In this poem, Herbert compares the outer vesture of Aaron with the inner condition of his soul. He finds in himself the brokenness common to all humanity—yet, as an ordained minister of the Gospel, he sees how utterly destructive that dissonance is for those whom he serves. Turning to God in humility, he acknowledges that the “music” of his soul is Christ, and offers the totality of his life and ministry to God so that Herbert might let the sound of the Gospel ring through him clearly. Renewed in this knowledge, he can go forth into the liturgy in peace and joy.
I have had this poem in the vesting sacristy for many years, and it forms part of the cycle of pre-liturgy prayers I offer week by week.
It was in a class on 17th Century English Literature that I was introduced to Herbert and the Anglican tradition. It was during that semester that I became aware of the beauty this part of Christ’s Church. My life has never been the same since, and for this I am deeply thankful on this, the annual commemoration of the life and witness of George Herbert—priest and poet.
Collect for George Herbert
Our God and King, who called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.