Prayer: “Engine against th’Almighty”

Part 8 in a series; see other parts here.

In prayer, God values our candor, meaning that God honors even words like these of Job’s:

If I summoned him and he answered me,
I do not believe that he would listen to my voice.
For he crushes me with a tempest,
and multiplies my wounds without cause;
he will not let me get my breath,
but fills me with bitterness. (Job 9:16-18, NRSV)

Sometimes our relationship with God is such that no prayer short of battering rams and catapults loaded with shrapnel and explosives will do. Herbert wrote a poem that figures tears and prayers as artillery, but I’m thinking more of the rage he expresses toward God in “The Collar” (where “choler” is one of the many puns in the title): “Have I no harvest but a thorn / to let me blood?”

So, it’s okay if our prayers beat and kick at God’s door—which really can seem closed to us at times—and it’s okay if we scream and swear in the process. Anger has a way of focusing our sights on the precise target we mean to hit, which paradoxically means that we rarely think of God so intensely as when we rage at the heavens. In quiet meditation we long to approach the throne, but in anger we can feel near enough to close our fingers around the divine throat, and when we attain such proximity God can the more easily reply: “My child.”

Prayer: “The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth”

Part 7 in a series; see other parts here.

Being an adult means spending quite a bit of time metaphorically at sea, not quite sure whether we’re in or out of our depth. Certainly we only rarely see to the bottoms of things. Herbert’s claim that prayer can find the bottom and measure its depth thus seems like a stretch. After all, the mere fact of praying doesn’t exempt anybody from occasional or even systematic cluelessness. What’s the use, then?

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Prayer: “Heart in pilgrimage”

Part 6 in a series; see other parts here.

Augustine famously wrote that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. (Herbert has a poem about that, too.) Our lives consist of so many cordial peregrinations as we seek to love and be loved, and while saying that all our loves are best founded in God’s love is easy, the practicalities tend to be messier. Devout Jews pray twice daily to love God with all their heart, soul, and might; so serious and difficult is the task of love that only that much prayer will do. In prayer we are pilgrims for love—a destination we never quite seem to understand.

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Prayer: “The soul in paraphrase”

Part 5 in a series; see other parts here.

In Romans 8 Paul writes that we do not know how to pray as we ought. Our hearts teem with tangles and fullnesses that resist expression in words or even thoughts. Sometimes the only prayer we can manage is lifting the knot of feelings toward God and saying, “See!” I believe that God does see such prayers, and yet our minds, even below the realm of speech, operate through forms and concepts that give shape and meaning to our experience—an orderliness made possible only by leaving many, many things out. We inhabit the world in paraphrase, so how can we pray otherwise?

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Prayer: “God’s breath in man returning to his birth”

Part 4 in a series: see other parts here.

The second creation story in Genesis features the vivid image of God creating a human (ha’adam) from the dust and breathing into its nostrils the breath of life. Breath becomes one of scripture’s most potent images, as the Hebrew ruach shifts into the Greek pneuma and the Latin spiritus—words that all indicate a complex of meanings including breath, wind, and spirit. Only in that moment of inspiration (“breathing in”) did the first human become a living soul. Our life, lest we forget, consists in this breath, not in bread alone. Prayer, then, is the stuff of very life.

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Prayer: “Angels’ Age”

This is part 3 in a series; see previous parts here.

Prayer, Herbert says, brings us into the time of the angels. Our lives seem so simple, temporally: one thing succeeds another as the present recedes into the past and stretches into the future. Prayer complicates things, though, by interjecting this orderly succession with eternity. Eternity doesn’t just interrupt time or transcend it; eternity transforms time. Paul describes the effect in 1 Corinthians 7:

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (NRSV)

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Prayer: “Church’s banquet”

Part 2 in a series; see all posts here.

Why does Herbert call prayer—and not the Eucharist—the “Church’s banquet”? Christian worship seems to have involved communal meals (“love feasts”) from very early on; Paul talks about them in 1 Corinthians 11, among other places. I love the notion of the sacrament as a hearty feast rather than a nibble and a sip, although these suffice.

Herbert lived not so long after the fierce 16th-century debates about the sacrament, in which theologians lobbed words like transubstantiation and consubstantiation at each other with something like violence. Scholars have argued quite a bit over Herbert’s own allegiances in these arguments. Herbert was a pastor, though, before he was a theologian: does fighting over how exactly the sheep are fed actually feed the sheep? [Read more…]

Poetry as Theology: Reading George Herbert’s “Prayer [I]”

See all posts in this series here.

Readers of this blog (and people who know me) will be aware that devotional poetry is close to my heart. (See this post on George Herbert, in which it was all I could do not to include at least twenty poems, or this one on Gerard Manley Hopkins, or any of the Sunday Morning Poems I’ve posted.) It would be very hard for me to have a spiritual life without poetry—and why should I have to? Yet if all God-talk is theology, what are the implications of having that theology take poetic form? Some time ago I read a book arguing that poetry in the Early Modern period handled the realities of conversion more effectively and accurately than did prose theological treatises. At stake here is nothing less than Pilate’s famous question: “What is truth?” Is truth contained in rigorous arguments moving logically from proposition to proposition, or is there something more evasive about it, something toward which we can only hint through images and metaphors? Or, conversely, are images and metaphors a cheat, deceiving us into the belief that there’s an easy way around working carefully and patiently to reason out the truth? [Read more…]

Tuesday in Holy Week

Part of the punitive appeal of crucifixion lies in the fact of public display: nothing says “remember who’s in charge” quite like a bunch of corpse-bedecked crosses outside the city gates. So, too, with Jesus, crucified as a troublemaker alongside two thieves and atop a hill, such that the scene might be visible from a distance. The message from the Romans: “We will not tolerate that business about destroying the temple and raising it up in three days, no sir, so don’t even think about it.” [Read more…]

George Herbert: Shepherd and Peacemaker

The 1630s—the decade of George Herbert’s death—were a tense period in the history of the English church. William Laud, bishop of London since 1628, became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. He came to office with an ambitious program of reform designed to bring unity to a fracturing polity. The fault lines had begun to show in 1625 when Puritans began to turn the methods honed in the anti-Catholic pamphlet wars on the bishops of their own church. Laud hoped to bring unity by simmering down the conflict with Rome, but this of course only fostered further accusations that he was a crypto-papist. Instead of bringing peace, Laud’s program culminated in two disastrous wars with Scotland—events that helped precipitate the civil wars of the 1640s. [Read more…]

Sunday Morning Poem: “The Flower,” by George Herbert

This poem, along with “The Agonie,” played a central part in my conversion to Herbert some ten years ago. I can still feel the pleasure of spiritual surprise I experienced upon first encountering the line “Thy word is all, if we could spell.”

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Sunday Morning Poem: “The Agonie,” by George Herbert

This series could not continue long without featuring George Herbert…

                                The Agonie

     Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staffe to heav’n, and traced fountains:
     But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love.

     Who would know Sinne, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
     His skinne, his garments bloudie be.
Sinne is that presse and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruell food through ev’ry vein.

     Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the crosse a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
     If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquour sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.

MLP: Easter Day

 

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Easter Day

Jeremiah 31:1-6 (NRSV); Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 (1979 BCP); Acts 10:34-43 (NRSV); John 20:1-18 (NRSV); D&C 76:19-24

The Collect: Almighty God, who through your Son overcame the world and conquered death, grant that we might not only live in him, but that we might daily rejoice in this gift of life through thy Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.

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MLP: Holy Saturday

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Holy Saturday

Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24 (NRSV); Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16 (1979 BCP—see pp. 622-23); 1 Peter 4:1-8(NRSV); John 19:38-42 (NRSV); 3 Ne. 8:19-25

The Collect: O God, thou who sawest fit to try our faith on this day between the death and resurrection of thy Son: lift up our hearts with the hope of his rising, by the power of thy Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Read more…]

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