Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Herbert’s “sample” prayers reflect his twin concerns, praying and preaching. When he prays in church, the parson acts in such a manner that his whole being suggests true devotion, because he desires that the congregation will be as affected as he is. He speaks deliberately but fervently, and he expects that the congregation will behave reverently—not sleeping, talking, or half-kneeling, but sitting attentively and providing responses that are heartfelt rather than rote. Herbert follows Anglican tradition regarding prayer (the necessity of praying three times a day) and encourages his flock to maintain a prayer life. Knowing that people sometimes fail to pray because they are embarrassed or feel guilty, he reminds them of their need for prayer. His concerns even extend to advising the church-wardens (those responsible for maintaining order during worship) to admonish those who do not behave properly during prayers or those who arrive too late for prayers, whatever their social status may be.

For Herbert, the parson’s life is preaching in action; his life is a sermon. He does offer some suggestions for reaching a congregation. The parson knows his flock, maintains eye contact, and speaks earnestly: He aims to inform and to inflame his audience. Clever eloquence and learned speech, which might be “over the heads” of his audience, are secondary to holy content and attitude. He relies on stories and metaphors tied to their lives, and he frequently interrupts the sermon with addresses to God and requests for his blessings on the congregation. (This same concern about letting one’s learning and wit interfere with a holy message appears in several poems in The Temple.) Finally, Herbert urges “preaching in friendliness.”

Herbert’s attitude toward the Sacraments is that of a typical Anglican pastor. For him, baptism is a solemn ceremony conducted only on Sundays and special occasions, and he instructs the godparents about its significance as the first step for a Christian. It is also a time for a congregation to reexamine their own baptisms and lives. Holy Communion should not be administered until a person understands the difference between the sacramental and ordinary bread and knows and understands the catechism (not just memorizes it). It is the understanding, not the age, of the person that determines fitness for Communion.