Every so often I come upon a poem or a paragraph or something that gives me chills – and continues to upon each subsequent reading – this poem is one of those.
I help out with the college/post-college group at my Church, which is awesome. This fall we’re talking about prayer – what it means, how we can understand it, and how it relates to the every-day life of a Christian. A few weeks ago i stumbled upon this poem from George Herbert – the brilliant 17th century English poet.
His poem Prayer I captures the mystery and wonder and power that is prayer to God. Check it below:
Prayer I – by George Herbert
PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods 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’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear ; Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise, Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.
Dr. Ben Witherington III, one of my favorite Seminary profs, wrote a particularly pertintent synopsis of this great poem –
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George Herbert presents us with a cornucopia of images of prayer in this
wonderful and striking poem. For one thing, he sees prayer as communion
with God, and so as a sort of feast.
Even if we don’t get what we ask for,
we do get what we most need, which is intimacy with God. Hebert also sees
prayer as natural, as natural as breathing, only prayer is spiritual
respiration, from the heart or soul, if it is at all genuine.
prayer is a sort of spiritual sacrifice offered up to God, or even more
strikingly, a seige engine with which to assail God when one is in dire
straits. But prayer is also seen as a way of taking the measure of God’s
will for our lives, and so it is a way for the heart to go on pilgrimage,
but the heart must listen for God’s answer while journeying.
The most daring
image in the poem is the analogy drawn between prayer and the spear that
pierced Christ’s side. The idea here is sacramental, and it is dynamic way
of saying that prayer releases the blessing, releases the healing, releases
all the benefits of the shed blood of Jesus. Herbert even ventures into the
psychology of prayer, saying it is something we all hear, but also fear.
Why fear? For the same reason a child is afraid to ask their parent for
something, lest the reply be no, or even worse in some cases— yes! There
is a wonderful line in the play called St. John in Exile where John on
Patmos has just heard that the Roman commander on the island has just been
converted, will allow John to leave the island, but would prefer him to stay
and instruct the commander in the faith. John wrily says to God ” Oh Lord
why do you answer my deepest prayers at the worst possible moments?”
Prayer is indeed something to fear and revere and handle carefully, since God is one who answers prayer. In the end Hebert sees prayer as something that
produces the fruit of the Spirit in the believer– love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness and so on. The final image of prayer as being like a peal
of a bell ringing out clearly reminds that God is not hard of hearing,
rather he is always listening and prepared to respond.
And that’s good news…