Part 22 in a series; see other parts here.
Prayer often finds us* at our worst, or at least what can feel like less than our best. We sob convulsively, shout angrily, plead earnestly—or we engage in an activity so rote that we can forget we’re doing it, embarrassed at how many of our prayers are thus. True, there are those moments of pure, blissful praise, or the times when grace’s undertow pulls us suddenly into the depths of divine love, and perhaps in such moments we could think ourselves spiffy, if only the familiar pride were not suddenly and mysteriously out of reach.
It’s not just that the simple act of praying puts us at least partly to rights with God, whose joy at the fact clothes us, like the prodigal, in rich robes of grace, but rather that in praying we put creation itself to good use. Who made the hearts that reach to heaven but God? Who shaped the knees we bend or the hands we lift? Who first blew into our nostrils the air we shape into speech? Whence fetched we words but from the Word? In prayer we take up the stuff of creation—our bodies and everything else—and show God that we see in it the prodigal’s robe that has been there from the beginning.
God tasked Adam and Eve with the dressing of a garden, one that in Milton’s retelling naturally flourished with such abundance that it risked running to wild. Now we, though cast out, share the same calling of cultivation and care, whatever the pangs that attend our reaping of life from the furrows of our fields or our selves. Our own souls are the gardens we dress, and prayer gives us the shears we use to lop a wayward branch, the shovel we use to spread manure in spring, the harrow we use to break up the hardened soil. Everything that grows and everything we use to grow it comes from God, but we have some discretion as to the arrangement of the things at hand. No two of our gardens are quite alike, and God delights to see us multiply the variety we were given, making new beauties out of ones already existing.
Few of us garden in our best clothes, and that’s as it should be. After all, one can hardly arrange a gorgeous flower bed without getting grubby knees.
* Pedantic, but just in case: even though Herbert’s “man” ostensibly includes women, it can leave room for doubt, so, to be clear, I unequivocally include women in the rhetorical “us” of this post. Women are people, full stop.