I First

It takes a while to get into Chester Cathedral these days. Construction work has blocked off the main entrance in the rear of the church, so to enter now, you must ignore at least one sign that says “Entrance,” wind around the side of the building, snake through a couple of temporary corridors, and finally find yourself in the cloisters adjacent to the church. If you turn left, you’ll be blocked by a vaccination clinic. (“We can’t go around that way,” shrugged the tour guide, “because of all the jabbings.”)

So you turn right and find yourself in the grand old eleventh century nave of the church.

And, as with all churches, to get to the heart of the space—the altar—you must walk a long way forward, through the crossing beneath the great tower, through the quire with its ornately carved wooden benches on either side, and finally to platform and table where heaven and earth meet one another in the Eucharist.

As I followed that pilgrimage yesterday, I was reminded of George Herbert’s collection of poems, The Temple, which we had begun to read together the following evening. The book is not at all strictly allegorical, but it does begin by clearly signaling an architectural structure. First comes “The Church Porch,” a rather tedious 462 lines of very didactic instructions on Christian behavior. I usually skim it or skip it when re-reading The Temple; no such luck navigating the Church-Porch in Chester.

Then comes a very brief poem called “Superliminare” (literally, “above the threshold”) and then comes “The Church,” the section of the book containing most of Herbert’s lyrics. Once you’re past the threshold, you’re in.

And strangely, the first poem you come to in “The Church” is “The Altar,” one of Herbert’s most famous poems because of its shape:

It’s strange because Herbert has so clearly invoked the actual structure of a church up to this point, but the altar never appears right inside the threshold of a Christian church—not in Chester Cathedral or anywhere else. A Christian reader who has some knowledge of churches runs into this poem in The Temple and says, “Wait, I thought this was a building?” So why does Herbert put this poem right up front? 

I’ve read a number of academic explanations of Herbert’s choice, and I’m still not sure what caused this sequencing. Its effect, though, jolts me every time.

All of a sudden, unexpectedly, “The Church” gets real. It’s personal. After a long series of Sunday School lessons in the second-person, bammo, the poet is talking about himself, and he’s not messing around. He’s getting right to the very heart of the Christian faith.

The British often marvel at Americans’ willingness to bare their souls to someone they’ve just met. Even the extremely gregarious Liverpudlians I’ve met have been slow to offer up anything personal about themselves. It takes several rounds of small talk to come around to that sort of thing. 

Not for Herbert. The first poem in “The Church” is profound introduction to his deepest identity. As many have noticed, “The Altar” isn’t just in the shape of an altar. It’s also an “I,” and it raises several paradoxes about the nature of that “I”: is the altar broken, as it clearly says it is in the first line, or is it whole (as we can see it is without even reading the poem)? 

Herbert ends the poem asking for a swapped identity with Christ, putting the exact nature of the “I” up for grabs. The following poem, “The Sacrifice,” (essentially an extended footnote on the word “sacrifice” in “The Altar”) plays with this exchange by also speaking in the first person—lots of “I”s in the poem—in the person of Jesus as he is arrested and crucified:

      Lo, here I hang, charg’d with a world of sinne,
      The greater world o’ th’ two; for that came in
      By words, but this by sorrow I must win:
                   Was ever grief like mine?

The meaning of “I” has shifted (one might say altered) from what it meant in “The Altar.”

In other words, “The Altar” is both a startling assertion of personal identity and a sudden subversion of that identity at the same time (although the term “superversion” seems more appropriate in this case).

The experience of running straight into Herbert’s “Altar” is both like unlike the experience I had of walking into Chester Cathedral. The first time you step into any grand old church, you are supposed to feel the ground shift a little bit. You are supposed to take a re-orienting moment to ask yourself whether you are in a heavenly space or an earthly one, or at least whether a space so vast still counts as an interior (“Wait, I thought this was a building?”). You should feel very small. Herbert does not have space—he has words on a page—so he creates a similar effect through other means.

And one of those means is by creating an experience unlike the distance one must travel from a church door to the altar. There is no time to breathe and look around inside Herbert’s “Church.” Sin and grace are in your face.

As it turns out, one of the things they’re doing in their construction work on the cathedral is to know out a large piece of the back wall(!), so that it can be replaced entirely by transparent glass. They want the nearby commercial district to have direct visual access to the center of the worship space.

That seems to me like a total Herbert move.

Window in Chester Cathedral

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Happy husband since 2001, proud dad since 2010, diligent English professor since 1995. "And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche."