A Table Grace for this Thanksgiving
Cavalier poet Robert Herrick was an Anglican priest and supporter of the Monarchy who, along with hundreds of other priests and bishops, was deposed and deprived of a livelihood in 1647 by the “Rump” Puritan Parliament that executed King Charles I. After 10 years of increasingly chaotic mis-rule by the military junta under Oliver Cromwell demonstrated to most Britons that parliament and republicans could be every bit as tyrannical as kings, the Anglican clergy was reinstated in 1660 along with Monarchy and the Prayer Book. Herrick today is probably best known for his lines celebrating the bon vivant ways of youth,
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying; And this same flower that smiles today, Tomorrow will be dying.”
Among church choristers, he is best known for his beautiful poem praising the restoration of the celebration of Christmas, banned by the Puritans, “What Sweeter Music,” usually now heard in a setting by John Rutter. In 1647, about the time he lost his livelihood and began a decade of living off the charity of friends and family, he wrote this short table grace, ostensibly for children:
“Here, a little child, I stand, Heaving up my either hand, Cold as paddocks though they be, Here I lift them up to Thee, For a benison to fall On our meat and on our all.”
The language is somewhat archaic: “paddocks” here means not a pasture, but “frogs”; “Benison,” is French for “blessing.” “Heaving,” of course, means “lifting,” but is chosen because of the echoes it makes of the great image of scripture for sacrifice, a “heave offering,” i.e. one lifted up to the Lord.
Here, the deposed priest, who once raised his hands in orans posture and elevated the Eucharistic elements at the Lord’s Table, is seen as a child with cold, wet, and clammy hands, making a mess at the dinner table before him, but still lifting up his hands in thanksgiving. The point is that even with all the suffering and fear in his life, of being infantilized by his enemies, and being deprived of thanking God in the holiest and most life-giving way, he still can thank God and be of priestly service. He knows well that Christ taught us to become helpless and dependent as little children, and that thanksgiving, however offered, still brings with it blessing.
In this Thanksgiving holiday constrained by Covid-19 measures, we cannot give thanks exactly as we are wont to do. But we still must give thanks. And learning to be like a child, giving thanks even while powerless, is a way of offering priestly gratitude even as we are deprived of our habitual practice.
Grace and Peace,