Monday, October 27, 2008

October 27, 2008 - George Herbert on Prayer

In my study-leave reading, I ran across a remarkable poem by George Herbert. I’ve long admired the poetry of this seventeenth-century Welsh divine. Herbert, a sickly man from a noble family, was ordained a priest at mid-life and labored in an obscure country parish. He died soon after, and would have quickly been forgotten were it not for his poetry, stunning in its imagery and use of the English language.

Reading a George Herbert poem is not easy. Like the scribblings of Shakespeare, his writing is studded with archaic vocabulary. To the persistent, though, what seems dense and incomprehensible at first slowly reveals hidden treasures.

Here’s the poem:

Prayer (I)

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.

So, what is prayer, anyway? Herbert’s answer comes in the form of metaphors, slung at us readers rapid-fire. Their meaning is so rich, you have to spend a little time with each one, turning it over and over in your hands...

“the Churches banquet”
– a biblical allusion, to any one of a number of passages that see the life to come as a rich feast. Isaiah sings of “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear”
(25:6). Jesus tells a parable about a host so determined to fill every seat at his banqueting-table that he throws the doors open to street people (Luke 14:15-24). “You that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55:1). Prayer is a feast, to which all are invited.

“Angels age” – Since Herbert doesn’t use apostrophes to indicate possession, this could mean “angels growing older,” or it could be – with an apostrophe – “the era of the angels.” I think it’s the latter. There’s something timeless about prayer.

“Gods breath in man returning to his birth”
– The poet of Genesis sees life as breath: the Creator God breathing life into nostrils of inanimate clay. To Herbert, prayer is a sort of exhalation, an exchange of respiration.

“The soul in paraphrase”
– To paraphrase dense prose is to render it understandable. In prayer, the human soul gives voice to its subtlest heartbeat, its deepest longing.

“heart in pilgrimage” – This one’s self-evident. Prayer is a long and deliberate Godward journey. It also suggests that prayer is best engaged as a long-term discipline.

“The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth”
– To us, “plummet” means to drop or fall, but it’s related to an old word for “lead.” The plumb is a lead weight a builder hangs from a line, in order to build a perpendicular wall. Ancient mariners would fling a lead weight overboard, attached to a line, in order to gauge the ocean’s depth. This technique was called “sounding.” Prayer, then, helps us test the depth of dark and incomprehensible mysteries.

“Engine against th’Almightie, sinner’s towre”
– The next few lines are about prayers of lament or imprecation: angry prayers that give honest voice to human pain and frustration. The “engine” is probably a siege engine, the ponderous wooden contraption an attacking army would wheel up against a city wall. Some of these siege engines were so tall, they could be called towers. A woman in my lymphoma support group was speaking recently of how her cancer has led her to ask the “Why me?” question. Cast in the form of prayer, such a question is an “engine against th’Almightie.”

“Reversed thunder” – If God sends thunder and lightning upon the earth, then prayer is our means of sending it rumbling right back. “The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook” (Psalm 77:18).

“Christ-side-piercing spear”
– Here, the poet considers the full implication of prayers of lament or imprecation. Such prayers, while honestly voicing human pain, are as the spear that pierced Christ’s side.

“The six daies world-transposing in an houre” – Prayer actually compresses time, wrapping the six days of Creation up as in a single hour.

“A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear”
– There’s an old tradition of singing our way through suffering. Think of African-American spirituals, or the rhythmic chanting of chain gangs. As long as Christians can still sing, as long as they can still pray, oppressors hear and tremble.

“Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse, exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best” – Prayer is power, but also it gives voice to feelings of deep and perfect peace.

“Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest” – Herbert returns to his earlier image of reversal, of dynamic exchange. Earlier, he described an exchange of breath (“Gods breath in man returning to his birth”). Now, he gives us an exchange of wardrobe. In prayer, heaven takes on the garb of an ordinary peasant, while humanity is attired as a grandee. In Herbert’s time, clothing instantly revealed what level of society its wearer belonged to. Laborers who habitually wore “ordinarie” homespun could never aspire to the silk doublets and hose of the nobility, let alone the fine cloth and lace collars of the rising merchant class. Prayer, however, is equally accessible to all. It flattens the most pronounced social division of all, that between earth and heaven.

“The milkie way, the bird of Paradise”
– Exotic images, these. Prayer allows us to reach out and touch the unattainably beautiful.

“Church-bels beyond the stars heard” – One of my most enduring memories of my year at Oxford in 1976-77 is the weekly, Sunday-evening rehearsal of the change-bell ringers. For an hour or so each Sunday, the skies above that town of many spires echoed the glorious cacophony of the bell-carillons, their ringers all practicing at once. It seemed like those melodies could reach even to the stars.

“the souls bloud” – Someone once observed that, if writing is the act of transforming blood into ink, then the dramatic act of speaking it aloud is the transforming of ink into blood. As the poet pours out the blood of human experience upon the page, so too does the poet transform “the soul’s blood” into the words, or even the silent communion, of prayer.

“The land of spices” – Another exotic image. To people of Herbert’s time, the far-off Indies, the spice islands, exerted an exotic and compelling pull on the imagination.

“something understood” – Herbert’s final metaphor for prayer is his simplest and most compelling, in an understated way. When we pray, often and with regularity, we gradually come to understand.


Anonymous said...

Great to read your spiritual posts (not that I mind the political and medical ones).

Ronni Gordon said...

I envy people who have strong faith and for whom prayer comes easily. It would be better to take that worry-energy and turn it towards prayer. When you are connected with a house of worship like you are, I assume that makes a lot of difference. But I guess that people can learn in their own way if they are spiritual though not currently practicing. (I'm Jewish and celebrate holidays and enjoy the traditions, but I don't belong to a synagogue.)

janet son said...

Great!!it helps me a lot.