Bemerton, Salisbury, Mary, Martha

When I first began to discern a call to join the Episcopal Church and be confirmed, I met for a time with the Rev. Nancy Ferriani, a priest at Trinity, Indianapolis, for spiritual direction. At one of our first meetings, she gave me a copy of poems by George Herbert and suggested we read and discuss.


Herbert was a 17th Century priest and poet. He was from a wealthy and influential family. He considered priesthood early in life but instead trained for a career in public service and served for a time in Parliament. After the death of James I, he decided to pursue holy orders. He was sent to a tiny parish, St. Andrew’s Chapel in Bemerton.

Herbert exterior

He served here only a few years and died at the age of 39. During his short ministry, he wrote several texts still read today. One was a book on the priestly life. But he is most remembered for his devotional poems and hymns. He shared his poems with his friend, Nicholas Ferrar (founder of a semi-monastic community at Little Gidding), who published them after Herbert’s early death. A hundred years later, I’m told, Charles Wesley was inspired by Herbert’s poetry. We still sing some of Herbert’s hymns – Let all the world in every corner sing, King of Glory, King of Peace, and, my particular favorite, Teach me my God and King.

Teach me, my God and King,
in all things thee to see,
and what I do in anything
to do it as for thee.

Herbert ashes
I was told Herbert’s ashes are interred under this cross by the altar.

Though Herbert wrote a book for priests, Nancy’s goal at that time was not to form me as a priest but as an Anglican Christian. Nancy wanted me to read Herbert and be inspired by Herbert’s devotion to God and to God’s people.

Herbert window
West window of the church, with Herbert and his friend Nicholas Ferrar.

So it was a particular pleasure this morning to walk to St. Andrew’s, Bemerton for their 8 am 1662 Prayer Book Morning Eucharist. The church is a 30 minute walk from Salisbury. I heard the church bells ring when I was about five minutes away and knew I was in the right place.

Herbert church and rectory
Church yard with rectory, which Herbert renovated in his day. The rectory was recently sold, but the church was glad it was purchased by a writer who embraces its history.

The church was smaller than I expected. The congregation numbered seven, including the priest. The nave holds maybe twenty, so it has always been a very small place. A lovely frontal on the altar inspired by Herbert’s poem “The Flower” was embroidered by the Sarum Guild.

Herbert church interior

Herbert altar lay minister
The lay minister agreed to pose for a photo by the altar.

It was indescribably lovely to worship God in this holy space. The priest, The Rev. Simon Woodley, seems to have inherited a double portion of Herbert’s spirit. He gave a thoughtful sermon on the text from Colossians – Christ in you, the hope of glory. He serves three congregations altogether and mentioned he had a different sermon for a later service. He is a busy guy. We prayed Rite I prayers I know by heart (albeit in slightly different 1662 English order). It was a quiet, filling, holy experience I will never forget.

Herbert rectors

Then I walked back to Salisbury and spent the rest of the morning at the Cathedral. I heard the last part of Matins, sung by the Salisbury choir on one of their last Sundays before break.

Believe it or not, most of the nave was full for the service. There were some empty seats, but most rows had at least a few people present.

I was early for Eucharist, which was extra special because there was a baptism in the glorious font. No pictures allowed – everyone just soaked it all in.

The gospel today was Luke 10:38-42 – the story of Mary and Martha. We often hear this lesson as a study in contrasts. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, hanging on his every word. Martha was busy with her tasks and more than a bit frustrated that her sister was not helping. Mary represents the contemplative life, and Martha the active life. We sometimes see this lesson as a call to elevate the contemplative over the active.

Today, however, I hear this lesson as both/and, not either/or. Martha, the good disciple, welcomed Jesus into her home and cared for him and his guests. Mary, the good disciple, listened intently to what he had to say, but Martha listened and talked with Jesus as well. Both were good disciples. Jesus spoke with compassion to Martha, not to condemn her choice of action, but to remind her and future disciples to pay attention to his teaching. (For more on these thoughts, there is a nice commentary on the passage here.)

Today was a Mary and Martha sort of day. St. Andrew’s and George Herbert live the gift of Mary, quietly sitting at the feet of Jesus in prayer and worship, day after day, century after century. Salisbury Cathedral is more like Martha – a busy place of hospitality and activity. Both help us continue to listen to Jesus.

The hospitality of Martha and the contemplation of Mary flow from the loving hospitality of Jesus, a love George Herbert knew deeply and shared. I saw that love in so many ways today. Here is a final Herbert poem.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

‘A guest,’ I answered, ‘worthy to be here.’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.’
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat:’
So I did sit and eat.

By the door at St. Andrew’s
A view from my walk


  1. Thank you for sharing your travels Grace, your words and pictures are wonderfully thought provoking.


  2. I’m loving all your posts Grace and must say that I especially love this one. As a Martha with a Mary sister who is a priest (ordained deacon in 1979), this gospel story has always been true of the two of us in many, many ways. The older we get, the more my Mary and I, as you say, are both/and…active hospitality and contemplative at Jesus’ feet. I never tire of this story and almost always learn something new from it.

    I also love all those hymns and anthems of George Herbert poems. Do you know the David Hurd arrangement of Love Bade Me Welcome? It’s a favorite of mine. Here’s a good recording from YouTube (hope it connects you)


  3. I am very much enjoying this trip through England’s holy sites; it is almost like being on pilgrimage with you!
    Thank you for sharing. You have inspired me in several areas of contact and spiritual growth.


Comments are closed.