George Herbert and the Schoolmaster

Why uncertainty and love might be central to a teacher’s calling.


“[..] thou art fire, sacred and hallowed fire;

And I but earth and clay: should I presume

To wear thy habit, the severe attire

My slender compositions might consume.

I am both foul and brittle; much unfit

To deal in holy Writ.”


So am I.  I’m with the poet George Herbert on this one.  If God is the potter with his fire, perhaps I am raw clay to be shaped and set with flames in a kiln. Or perhaps not.  So little is certain.  As a teacher, I might wish in turn to take the raw material of a child and mould him into a young adult, and test him with “fire” – and yet such a comparison is supremely arrogant.  Here’s the trouble: I find speaking about faith very difficult to do, especially when it comes to my vocation, partly because I don’t like praying on street corners – speaking loudly about one’s religion is so very un-English – but mostly because, as Auden said of poetry, it is so easy to be utterly dishonest.  We might give people the notion that this schoolmastering is so awful or so wonderful (which is just as bad), that we end up either putting them off completely, or else we become the promoters of that popular form of spiritual sado-masochism that feels good by feeling bad all the time, where true happiness is supposed to be achieved by being truly miserable all the time, where people want healing but don’t want to get better, or believe that true love is supposed to reside in those who are guilty or angry all the time …


What’s more, I am, as the poet suggests, unfit to deal in holy Writ: bible readings are often quoted to young people to encourage them to “follow their calling”.  But, not being trained to interpret them, I can’t always see how they help: many saints were brutally tortured and martyred, which does not exactly promise us a life of luxury for following Christ.  However, one of you out there has decided to follow a calling to become a teacher, and I know there are others who are thinking about committing that act, because you have asked me about it.  So I can only apologise for not offering a full, Scripture-based theological piece about vocational calling, because I wouldn’t be any good at it.  What advice I do have, though, I offer here, as a brief letter to the first of you to put his head above the parapet (I’ve changed his name) :


Oundle School, Church Street, Oundle PE8 4EE

28th January, 2016.

Dear James,


I’m sorry you are not getting a sermon, or a Scriptural analysis, or a full academic paper today; if you want something to ponder, go and look up George Herbert’s poetry and that should keep you going for a few years. You, but earth and clay, are indeed unfit to deal in holy Writ, or any of the important questions of life, let alone that most important of tasks, the raising and educating of children: why should you be different from the rest of us?


It might seem strange, but let’s start by thinking about Judas, the traitor disciple.  Those who would imagine themselves called by God to some profession or other, whether teaching or doctoring or the priesthood, or anything, should always keep Judas in mind. Because if we are not careful, those of us in the teaching business can easily end up looking and behaving very much like him.  Judas is different from the other eleven apostles by being the only one who thought that he knew what he was doing. And one of the most important convictions you must hang on to if you are taking up the sacred mantle of helping raise someone’s child, is the fact that, theologically speaking, you do not and cannot know what you are doing. If you let go of that conviction, if you think for one minute that you are any good at the ‘job’, then you are on the slippery slope to seeing teaching as a mere set of skills to be acquired or techniques to be learned, rather than what it is: the intense and troubled yielding to a calling and a love that will not let you go.


There’s a militant drive these days always to analyse things, to pick them apart and understand them with the tools of Reason.  Yet our pupils are human beings, noble creatures, not objects for dissection.  The Scriptures and the sacraments on which Christian faith is based (communion, baptism, marriage and so forth) are also a bit like people: we don’t love those whom we love because we fully understand them, but because we have met them; because we have encountered them. And the more we get to know and love a person, the more we realise there is yet more to know, something always just beyond our grasp.  To try to understand them is beside the point.  We meet them; we experience them; therefore, we love them.


This is a strange place to be, this not quite knowing, but it is the place to which we are all called in one way or another.  Answering this call is our duty and our joy, but quite often also our pain.  It is the place where divinity and humanity, time and eternity, grace and matter, collide.  It’s hard to describe what this strange place of meeting is.  For a teacher, perhaps the most obvious meeting place is the classroom, but there are others …


  • in the evening in the boarding house after several cups of tea when the pupil you’re with finally gets to the point and opens up to you;
  • when some disruptive pupil who has darkened the door of your classroom all year suddenly says ‘thank you’ after a lesson – and really means it;
  • when the doorbell goes while preparing a crucial lesson for next morning (or finally spending some time with one’s other half), and it’s a tutee who’s having a spot of bother;
  • when the phone goes and it’s a former colleague telling you about an old boy who got run over last night at university and probably won’t live when they switch off the machine in eight hours’ time …


This meeting of divinity and humanity even occurs at Departmental Meetings or other gatherings of ‘Christian’ persons – so long as we remember that Judas is alive and kicking in all sorts of ways to this day … especially in teaching!  The only proper response to this strange meeting place is not ‘understanding’ or ‘fear’ or even ‘thankfulness’, but rather ‘humility’ and ‘wonder’; something described rather well by the poet Emily Dickinson as:


“Not precisely Knowing

And not precisely knowing not

A beautiful but bleak condition

He has not lived who has not felt.”


There have been times when I have asked myself why on Earth I gave up a perfectly good, well paid job, in order to spend time training other men’s children, setting myself up to be the victim of totally unrealistic expectations from pupils’ parents, and even from colleagues – members of a large profession that, outside this School at least, spends an inordinate amount of its time wittering on about matters that have little or nothing to do with the education of young men and women, or that too often confuses human concerns with political motives, or whose pronouncements would be the stuff of high comedy if they did not affect the lives of actual, young human beings.


When this happens, I try to remind myself of this simple guide to a Schoolmaster’s Sanity:


  • hang onto the knowledge of your own inability to do what God has called you to do;
  • have faith in the grace that will transfigure that uselessness if you let it;
  • do not forget any moment or sounds or words, when the ‘glory of the story’ has crossed your path with sudden or especial clarity;
  • do not allow any one institution where you work to trivialise or parochialise your vision of what you are about;
  • do not hate the institution, for if you do not love it, you will not transfigure it, and you become part of the problem; by the same token, do not be seduced by the institution either;
  • do not settle for the cheap, sad little versions of Christianity or schoolmastering that satisfy far too many people these days; in sum, do not lose your capacity for wonder.


“Wherefore I dare not, I, put forth my hand

To hold the Ark, although it seem to shake

Through th’old sins and new doctrines of our land.

Only, since God doth often vessels make

Of lowly matter for high uses meet,

I throw me at his feet.”


James, I hope this is all of some use.  With affection, best wishes and wonderful good luck;


Mr Gunson.




Acknowledgements: Some of this piece is based, by kind permission, on an address on the nature of the Priesthood and the poetry of George Herbert, by Fr Peter McGeary at the Edington Festival of Music within the Liturgy, 2014, a (C of E) choral music festival made up from the various Oxford & Cambridge collegiate, and cathedral, choirs.  Some of us at that event felt a strong and natural comparison between the two professions (in certain respects) and discussed it well into the night over drinks. I am grateful to Peter for his advice, counsel and permission to adapt some of his ideas, and those of colleagues at other schools.

For further references, see: Wilcox, Helen (ed.), The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 550-555 et passim. Scriptural passages of particular relevance might include: Genesis iii 9; Matthew vi 5; 1 Corinthians xv 47; 2 Corinthians iv 7; Isaiah lxiv 8.


George Herbert

George Herbert, 1593 – 1633