In the poems of The Temple, Herbert is doing many things. At one level he is autobiographical, expressing his personal realization of what it means to be a priest in God’s house. Sometimes, as in “The Quip,” the poet is defenseless before his assailants, with only the repeated reply on his lips, “But Thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.” In “The Sign,” the poet knows the depth to which he must yield himself to God. As a pastor, he reminds himself, “Christ purg’d His temple; so must thou thy heart.” Indeed, “look to thy actions well:/ for churches are either our heav’n or hell.”
At another level, Herbert represents the claims and value of the visible church. In “The Invitation,” all are invited to share in the Communion “supper,” to a feast which is God himself. For “where is All, there All should be.” In the “Church Militant,” having described the corruption of past false institutions, Herbert anticipates “then shall Religion to America flee:/ They have their times of Gospel, ev’n as we.” However, he believes it will be accepted by dint of their poverty, “for gold and grace did never yet agree:/ Religion always sides with poverty.”
At a third level, Herbert senses the contradictions of life, of nature and grace, of continuity and renewal, of humankind’s natural existence and God’s purposes. In day-to-day living, balance and theological resolution are needed, in the experience of faith by tension. In “Vanitie,” he sees the immediate presence of eternal life within a fleeting world of death. In “The Tempter (II)” he suffers the inconsistencies of life. In “The Glimpse” he lives with spiritual desertion. Tension, however, is resolved when I can see “My life is hid in Him that is my treasure.” So Herbert sees theology in practice, as a daily challenge. For as “The Forerunners” reiterates, “Thou art still my God.” The mystery of God’s presence is life’s resolution.