The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for thee?
My soul ’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.George Herbert, Christmas II
The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
“My soul is a shepherd, a flock it feeds”, sang George Herbert. Such a lovely image of taking good care of your own inner life, and bringing forth something beautiful! Just repeating this sentence in my head already helps reduce the tension that I often feel when I am disagreeing with myself.
Especially in lockdown time, our inner life comes to the surface. It’s not always easy to know how to deal with ourselves. I too notice within me a multitude of thoughts, wishes, ingrained attitudes, so much that it often feels as if multiple personalities are competing with each other, each wishing to promote their viewpoint as the ultimate “me”. And it’s good to have this image of a good shepherd in mind, to remember that “I” am not this thought or that, but the shepherd who looks after all the various members of the flock and makes sure that each gets what it needs.
How can I be that shepherd? What do my inner personalities need? George Herbert answers: “The pasture is thy word; the streams thy grace, enriching all the place.” Is that really so? My questioning part objects: “I want to be heard, not preached to”. But who speaks about preaching? Is that God, or is that me interpreting his words? Perhaps I should have a better look at my preacher within, and make sure it remembers grace: the welcoming friendship that allows all parts to flourish.
My experience with mindfulness has taught me quite a bit in this respect. I learned to see that there is a “me” that is aware of my thoughts and emotions. It’s a funny experience to catch yourself in a train of thoughts and then wonder: but who caught myself? Above all, mindfulness taught me to have a benevolent and open attitude, welcoming every thought1.
Another helpful viewpoint comes from Saint Augustine, who wrote in the second part of his book The Trinity: “I know myself and love myself”. He saw that as an image of the Trinity: being, knowing and loving, similar to the three persons who are all the one God. I find it helpful to ponder that just “being” is in itself good, and also that being-knowing-loving are interrelated and inform each other. Knowing without loving is not truly knowing, nor vice versa2.
So, back to my question: how can I be that shepherd? In the past months, these words have come to my mind again and again. As if the Holy Spirit would gently remind me: “Come, stop ruminating, be that shepherd!”. And it occurred to me that I should ask Jesus, for is he not the Good Shepherd? Is he not the best example of how to be that shepherd? So I asked him: “But look here, this particular part of me, that I don’t like so much, how would you shepherd that? Do you love that also?” And it seems to me that the answer to the latter question is: “Yes”, he loves even that part, considers it most valuable. But how can I? Oh well, I think I know, and will keep that to myself 🙂 But it is a good question to ask, and let yourself be surprised by the light love brings.
I will end with sharing the full poem of George Herbert. The old English is hard to understand, but it ends (I think) with the beautiful description of how our love and God’s love influence each other.
The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?George Herbert, Christmas II
My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipped suns look sadly.
Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev’n His beams sing, and my music shine.
- See also Warmth of friendliness
- See also my other texts God’s image, and Love loves love, for further reflections on knowing and loving yourself as image of the Trinity.