Thursday, 25 February 2016

on the riches of prayer

The poems we have reflected on over the last couple of Sundays were written by modern poets and fairly easy to understand on a first reading. This week we go back 400 years to the Welsh poet-priest George Herbert. Although he was dead by the age of 39 Herbert's output was prolific, and his thinking about how to exercise parish ministry in rural settings has had a long reach — still an influence on clergy today. He was also the writer of hymns, amongst others Let all the world in every corner sing, which we often sing at St Anne and All Saints.

Our poem today, is Prayer, and is considered one of George Herbert's finest:

Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

What makes this sonnet reward re-reading is the density of meaning and ideas it contains. One of today's poet-priest's, Malcolm Guite, says this about it:

Its richly laden 14 lines contain no fewer than 27 images or reflections of what prayer might be for us. From the uplifting 'exalted Manna' to depth-sounding 'Christian plummet', from the heaven-ward ringing music of 'church bells beyond the stars heard' to the deeply incarnate discovery of 'Heaven in ordinary', Herbert's imagery captures the ups and downs of our prayer life and maps out for us the spiritual terrain through which we are moving.

The Word in the Wilderness, Malcolm Guite, Canterbury Press 2014

Rather than try and take all of it in at once, a good way to approach this poem is to pull out one or two phrases that particularly strike you as interesting — maybe because they are easier to understand, or perhaps you like the imagery, or find they resonate with your own experience of prayer.

A couple of lines stand out for me today — but the beauty of a jam-packed poem like this is that next time I read it something else will draw my eye.

'God's breath in man returning to his birth...'
Last week we recalled the creation story where God breathes life into the first human. Herbert beautifully imagines God-given breath being returned to its source when we pray. Here is praise that God's creatures offer up to their creator for all that we have been given, not least the gift of life itself.

As a child I was taught that the way to start a prayer was in thanksgiving, but it can be easy to forget that. What are the blessings that you want to give thanks for today?

And prayers can also be actions, not just words. In the same we that we use our God-given breath in praise (or hymns), so we can also use our God-given gifts and talents in service to God and others. By doing so, these also return to their source, their birth. This too is worship. What impact does your prayer life have on your way of Christian living?

'A kind of tune which all things hear and fear...'
I'm fond of the idea that the divine is a song reaching out across the heavens and earth, and that our job is to listen out and join in. Prayer is not only about talking to God, but listening for God so that we can tune in and join with the eternal song. This requires our prayers to be in step with what God desires. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We pray for the kingdom of God, which Jesus announced, to grow and come to fulfilment. We pray so that we may become part of the kingdom project.

Rowan Williams writes:
Christians do not pray expecting to get what they ask for in any simple sense — you just might have noticed that this can’t be taken for granted! Rather, Christians pray because they have to, because the Spirit is surging up inside them. Prayer, in other words, is more like sneezing — there comes a point where you can’t not do it. The Spirit wells and surges up towards God the Father. But because of this there will be moments when, precisely because you can’t help yourself, it can feel dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, hard to speak about. Which is why so many great Christian writers on the spiritual life have emphasized that prayer is not about feeling good. It is not about results, or about being pleased with yourself; it is just what God does in you when you are close to Jesus.
Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (SPCK)

When we are attentive to God, prayer happens, whether we have anything in mind to pray about our not. Our prayers are joining in with what Jesus is already doing. And often the biggest change that prayer will make in the world will be to us, so that we become better builders for the kingdom of God; agents of change in the cause of love and justice and peace. This is why silent prayer can be so powerful. By contemplating God in stillness and quietness, centring ourselves on divine love, we are switching on an inner wireless ready to listen to God's call on us and get in harmony with the 'tune which all things hear.'

Perhaps on reading this poem different things will stand out for you than did for me, and you might want to take time during the coming week to re-read it on a number of occasions and see what ideas stick out for you. Other poets have followed George Herbert's lead and also written poems in the same vein, collecting together their own images and metaphors for what prayer is like for them. You, too, might want to think about doing that this week. And if you do, I'd love to read it.


  1. I pray in Him He prays in me
    He looks at me, what does He see?
    I strive, I try,
    To be as one,
    Jesus said to me, 'Come,
    Just as you are' and you will see,
    Riches - Just be.

  2. Time to Pray

    It's hard to find time

    At dawn? At dusk?

    Five times a day? Or just before meals?

    It's hard to find time;

    For church or synagogue, mosque or temple.

    We ask for help in trouble, sorrow, guilt and fear.

    But it's hard to find time when things go well.

    It's hard to find time

    when our hearts are hard

    and when God seems far away.

    But time is eternal and each life a prayer.

    Enjoy the first rays of dawn,

    Rejoice in your every breath, step, sound.

    Listen to His word in the silence of the night.

    Remember you are in Him and He in you.

    You might not have time for God,

    But God certainly has time for You.