Academic journal article Cithara

Bearing the Longest Part: George Herbert and the Disoriention of Doubt

Academic journal article Cithara

Bearing the Longest Part: George Herbert and the Disoriention of Doubt

Article excerpt

The whole time smiling.-Sisters and people pass such remarks.- They think my faith, trust and love are filling my very being and that the intimacy with God and union to His will must be absorbing my heart.-Could they but know-and how my cheerfulness is the cloak by which I cover the emptiness and misery (Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light; Kolodiejchuk 182).

...therefore the Parson is very strict in keeping his word, though it be to his own hindrance, as knowing, that if he be not so, he will quickly be discovered, and disregarded: neither will they believe him in the pulpit, whom they cannot trust in his Conversation. As for oaths, and apparel, the disorders thereof are also very manifest. The Parson's yea is yea, and nay nay: and his apparel plain, but reverend, and clean, without spots, or dust, or smell; the purity of his mind breaking out, and dilating itself even to his body, clothes, and his habitation (George Herbert, "The Parson's Life," Wall 57).1

I begin with two selections of prose that illustrate a vital distinction between the outward, social performance of faith, and the more private interior workings of that faith. In both examples, the pro forma of outward practice is the result of socio-cultural expectations that are imposed on persons of faith who assume the role of religious leadership. Performative markers-Mother Teresa's smile and gestures of cheerfulness, George Herbert's oaths and his plain reverend apparel-demonstrate conformity to social and moral religious practice and provide clear indications that the mm or the parson in question possesses the necessary requirements of her or his position as a religious leader and role-model. One might think that these requirements would include, perhaps above all, a devout and unwavering faith. But while both passages suggest the feasibility of performing faith, upon closer examination, the outward demonstration of piety actually directs our attention to the more doubt-filled interior regions of the subject.

Indeed, the disjunction between the inner and outer persona is quite obvious in the example of Teresa's "cloak" of cheerfulness, which she employs to "cover the emptiness and misery"; her statements about her unhappiness and her alienation from God are strikingly explicit and free of pretense. Writing to her confessor and thus within a context of sacred privacy, Teresa's words were protected by the Catholic practice of confession and as such were kept secret from the public until after her death. During her lifetime, the power of her public performance and faithful actions were never at risk of being undermined by the rhetoric of doubt expressed in her private letters. The evidence of religious uncertainty is less obvious in the example from Herbert-drawn as it is from a document designed for the consumption of other professional parsons-but his "very strict" insistence that the parson must keep his word, as a protection against the possibility of being "discovered, and disregarded," or not believed in the pulpit, indicates that he was no less aware than Teresa of the pressure on spiritual leaders to keep up appearances.2 Herbert's posture in fact raises the specter of a crisis of faith in a more indirect way; what he fears is that the parson's own protestations of belief will not be believed-will not be regarded as sincere-by others.

The relevance of this relation to the performance aspect of faith is interesting. The parson's clean unspotted attire is directly correlated with the spontaneous, unperformed "purity of his mind breaking out, and dilating itself even to his body, clothes and his habitation."Conceptually and rhetorically, the final lines of "The Parson's Life" hint at the parson's wish that outward practices, religious decorum-and perhaps even a dash of superstition-will prevent doubt from becoming ever-larger, from dilating itself, and thus, from diluting his performative capacity and credibility. These tensions between the performance of faith and a countervailing undercurrent of doubt, and the impact of both upon the way in which spiritual messages are received and interpreted, are central to this essay. …

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