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An Excerpt from Lauren Winner’s A Word to Live By
Recently I copied out this poem from George Herbert:
As on a window late I cast mine eye,
I saw a vine drop grapes with J and C
Anneal’d on every bunch. One standing by
Ask’d what it meant. I, who am never loth
To spend my judgement, said, It seem’d to me
To be the bodie and the letters both
Of Joy and Charitie. Sir, you have not miss’d,
The man reply’d; It figures JESUS CHRIST.
I love this poem. I love the shadowy man “standing by” (in a trenchcoat, I like to think). I love the narrator’s ability to poke fun at himself, acknowledging that he never hesitates to give his opinion. And I love what the poem has to say about letters, and about reading letters.
Most straightforwardly, I suppose, the poem is about Jesus. The speaker of the poem isn’t mistaken (hasn’t “miss’d”) in thinking that the “J” and “C” are shorthand for “Joy” and “Charitie,” because the quintessence of joy and charity are found in Jesus Christ–so the letters’ figuring Jesus doesn’t prevent, and indeed requires, their also figuring charity and joy.
But if the poem is about Jesus, it’s also about reading written text. It suggests that a text can mean more than one thing (just as the poem itself means something about Jesus, and something about reading). Every text is inexhaustible; every text means more than its authors or its readers think it means. “J”s and “C”s can signify virtues and Jesus, both.
But Scripture is peculiarly inexhaustible. That’s part of what Christians indicate when they name Scripture as Scripture, and that’s why we keep reading it–because there are always more meanings to find.
And, as the Herbert poem suggests, all those meanings somehow disclose God.
One reason I like this poem is that it includes grapes. I don’t know exactly what grapes “anneal’d” (that is, enameled, or fired, as glazed ware is fired) with letters look like, but I enjoy trying to picture it. And I have to think that Herbert wrote about grapes rather than, say, crabapples, because grapes are everywhere in the Bible: they’re props in people’s harvest celebrations and, in the Song of Songs, they mark the place where the lovers will finally have sex. (Also, sour grapes that set your teeth on edge are used by the prophets as a metaphor for sin.) Grapes, in Scripture, figure the abundant gifts of the Lord–gifts that number among them, of course, Scripture itself. So in Herbert’s poem, we can read the grape bunches on which the men spy “J” and “C” as the Bible. Whatever the Bible is saying–whatever it’s saying about virtues, whatever it’s saying about windows or fruit or trenchcoats–it’s also always saying something about Jesus. It’s always pointing to God.
Join the Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner in a weekend of spiritual reflection and revitalization, which will include sessions on: distance and intimacy in the Christian life, engaging Christian biblical texts, and integrating the Christian life and the emotional life. Dr. Winner will preach at all three services.
Sat, April 6, 9 am-4 pm
$30 at door. Lauren Winner leads a day retreat on “The Choreography of the Christian Life.” The Rev. Dr. Winner combines Scripture with spirituality to explore a variety of topics.
Sunday, April 7, 9am
“Proclaiming Freedom for the Prisoners: Opening Biblical Texts in Incarcerated Spaces.”