TURNING THE DIAMOND: George Herbert on Prayer, Week 2

Note: For anyone joining this series in Week 2 (you can find the consolidated Week 1 here), we are continuing the verse-by-verse exposition of George Herbert’s sonnet “Prayer” assisted by the fine book by Dennis Lennon, Turning the Diamond: Exploring George Herbert’s Images of Prayer.

Here is the sonnet in full.

Prayer the Church’s banquet, angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth;

Engine against the Almighty, sinner’s tower,
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 dressed,
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Day Six:  ENGINE AGAINST THE ALMIGHTY, SINNER’S TOWER

We have come to the second week and the second stanza. The first stanza takes an exalted view of prayer, like the praise Psalms, extending from the heavenly realms to the inner reaches of the human soul and heart. The second stanza takes an adversarial tack, more like the complaint Psalms: Engine against the Almighty, sinner’s tower…

Dennis Lennon comments on this phrase:

Gradually I began to see that it was exactly because I had nothing in my background or experience that would allow me to depend upon myself for this ministry. It would have to be the sole work of God. Suddenly it made perfect sense. This way God would receive the glory.

We pray because prayer works. We wouldn’t if it didn’t; and we certainly wouldn’t spend time meditating on an old prayer-sonnet. Prayer works, not on account of any excellence in our practice of prayer, but because, and only because, we pray in the name of Jesus…Just how God answers our prayers, the manner and the timing, is a mystery we leave among “the secret things which belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29)….

We pray because prayer works, and because it changes things. It changes the world and it is able to penetrate the hearts of men to change their ways. According to this latest facet of Herbert’s diamond, prayer even “changes” God, in the sense that a captor “changes” his prisoner. This hair-raising, staggeringly risky picture takes up the idea of the old military engineers constructions for siege and assault, his “engine” to batter the enemy’s defences, tunnel under his trenches and blow open the gates of his fortress….

Prayer as “engine against the Almighty” is supported by examples from throughout scripture. We will settle for one, the great seminal episode, which is the origin and  source of the belief that heaven and God welcome our onslaught in prayer: Jacob at the river Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-32).

If ever a man needed divine intervention it was Jacob at that moment. His brother Esau, the one he famously swindled out of his inheritance, was on his way to find him with four hundred men, doubtless determined to settle an old score. Not surprisingly, Jacob was in great fear and distress (v. 7), alone and waiting for Esau to catch up with him. But he had God’s promise, given in the ladder dream (28:1-19), a reaffirmation of the ancient and unconditional covenant promise made to Abraham and his descendants, chosen to carry forward the covenant on behalf of the world: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go… I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (28:15). How a man in a tight corner can put that promise to work is unforgettably demonstrated in what happened next.

This was the moment, if ever there was one, for God to come through with his promised protection and blessing. How do you picture to yourself God’s blessing coming into your life? Like an empty container waiting to be filled, perhaps, or a parched garden watered by a downpour of rain. But in this moment, when Jacob and his future nation receive their new name of “Israel,” God invites him to wrestle for his blessing. “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak” (32:24). We know “the man” was a theophany, God incognito, for next day Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning “I saw God face to face” and lived to tell his story.

What passed through Jacob’s mind as he grappled with his opponent, crashing around on the bank and in the river? At some point the realization dawned (or was it a lightning flash of revelation?) that he was fighting with a God-man, a man representing God: God-as-this-man. Instead of the textbook orthodox reaction – leaping back as if he had touched ten thousand volts, or falling flat on his face in abject submission – he seized the moment to claim full payment of the promises. What had been given in words – heard in the head, mediated through intellectual processes, carried in the memory – is now incarnated; the promise is here in flesh and blood gasping, panting and in his grip. Now he will hold God, literally, to his word. No question here of theological subtleties, God had fallen into his embrace and Jacob will not let him go: sweat, pain, exertion, until he had wrestled God to the ground. Queensberry rules do not apply here where a man holds God to his word. When the man-God pleads for an end to the match Jacob responds with an even stronger hold.

Here is the paradoxical logic of prayer as an “engine against the Almighty.” Only God can bless, but he allows himself to be overwhelmed and taken. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Is there an element here of God testing out our quality: the quality of our seriousness and single-mindedness in our relationship with him?…. In other words, by allowing prayer to become an “engine against the Almighty,” God is saying to us “I meant it – do you mean it!”

I just wrote a commendation for a forthcoming book titled The Road to Jericho by Elizabeth “Betsy” Hake, a long-time missionary in Honduras. Betsy studied form criticism from me thirty years ago and then went out to storm the barricades of poverty, sexual exploitation and child neglect. She writes of her calling:

Gradually I began to see that it was exactly because I had nothing in my background or experience that would allow me to depend upon myself for this ministry. It would have to be the sole work of God. Suddenly it made perfect sense. This way God would receive the glory.

Betsy’s improbable Jericho Ministries, are an example of prayer (and fasting) as an “engine against the Almighty,” an inspiration to me and others who know her and have been blessed by her work.

What about the second phrase: “sinner’s tower”? It seems to me the image here is the defensive version of “engine against the Almighty?” We are ensconced atop God’s mighty fortress and we pray with the boldness of justified sinners. This is the gist, I think, of Luther’s advice: “Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death and the world.” We resist the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, not by walking past trouble on the other side like the priest and the Levite but by risking contamination (so real in today’s coronavirus plague), recognizing that our defense is sure in God’s Word: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13; cf. 1 John 2:1-2).

For the Christian, prayer equips us with the whole armor of God, offensive and defensive: hence it is the “engine or the Almighty” and the “sinner’s tower.”

Day Seven: REVERSED THUNDER, CHRIST-SIDE-PIERCING SPEAR

Engine against the Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,

The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

In this verse, according to Lennon’s commentary, prayer now sounds more like end-time prophecy than psalmody:

Two wild pictures of prayer charged with an intensity of wisdom and with a whiff of anarchy. Prayer is God-sponsored subversion. Nothing is safe from its penetration; no power structure, tyrant or demon is free from its interference. “Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you” (Luke 22:31-32). Prayer inverts pecking orders, the who’s who and what’s what. Not because it strives to be controversial or Bolshie, an angry voice shouting abuse from the touchlines, but because it surveys the action from alongside the throne of God. Prayer has its distinctive and revolutionary stance, even daring to turn God’s own war-engine against him as it lays siege to heaven. Prayer is the great iconoclast, scorning man’s high-prestige earth-to-heaven communications at Babel, rebuilding it from heaven to earth at Pentecost. Prayer reverses things, even thunder. Prayer is “reversed thunder.”

This is startling idea (made up of two non-startling words – but that’s poetry for you!) even for Herbert’s imagination. Do you wish to explore further into the potency and aggression of prayer? Contemplate thunder!

There is a prayer which storms into heaven as unstoppably as thunder storms into our presence on earth. It is the irresistible power of the prayer of love. Prayer inspired by love: love-at-prayer. Prayer is not measured by volume or appearances, but by the efficacy of love. Thus, no amount of thundering and storming could cause the cosmos to jump on its hinges the way Jesus’ prayer at Calvary did. It was such a small and quiet prayer amongs the rabble noise around the cross, in circumstances of utter desolation. His body convulsing with the agony of slow crucifixion, his mind and spirit obliterated with making atonement for the guilt of the world, he prayed his “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The answer came as a cataclysmic outpouring of grace-power comparable, if at all, with the “Let there be light” of creation itself. The Father answered the Son’s prayer, a one-sentence request, and forgave us our God-crucifying iniquity! Such prayer is “reversed thunder”; heaven is delighted to be defenceless against it, the love of God powerless to resist the prayer of love….

And prayer is the “Christ-side-piercing spear.”

Christians of whatever tradition will agree that vital and authentic prayer is that which reaches into the heart of Christ, or however one wishes to express it. The first person to do that was not a saint, a mystic, or an apostle but a Roman soldier in the execution squad. Whether out of casual brutality or as an act of mercy he “pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, and at once there was a flow of blood and water” (John 19:34). Avoiding the subtleties of Eucharistic symbolism we can say plainly that the outflow of blood and water was the outflow of Jesus’ life. With enormous imaginative power, George Herbert sees our prayer as that spear piercing Christ’s side, penetrating deep into the innermost body, his heart, releasing the flow of his inexhaustible life into the world.

No, let’s not avoid subtleties of Eucharistic symbolism, because Herbert does not. Here are two places where he likens sacred flow from the spear to the sweet wine of the sacraments:

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood, but I, as wine.
(“The Agony”)

 

Nay, after death their spite shall further go;
For they will pierce my side, I full well know;
That as sin came, so Sacraments might flow:
Was ever grief like mine?
(“The Sacrifice”)

Now back to Lennon:

We touch God in prayer not on the side of his “unapproachable light” but in his flesh, our flesh, which he has made his flesh in Christ. We touch God in “the flesh of ‘God” as our prayers enter like a spear-thrust through Christ’s wide-open side into his heart. He offers himself to our prayers as he offered his side to their spear thrust. How blessedly different this is to those lofty abstractions of the theologians which effectively leave God out of our flesh-experience.

Now use this picture to assure your anxious mind that God stands open, touchable, and accessible to our prayers in Christ. “The flesh of God” is our touching place.

Day Eight: THE SIX DAYS WORLD TRANSPOSING IN AN HOUR

Engine against the Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

It may seem at first that we have passed from the violent images of the first two verses to a more transformative one in the third verse. But Dennis Lennon returns to Christ’s death on Calvary as the “transposing hour” of the new creation, which inaugurates the apocalyptic battle between Satan, the ruler of this world, and the Church Militant, the Woman who brought forth the man-child. who is to rule the nations with a rod of iron:

At the risk of overloading the imagination and blowing all the fuses, try to visualize this: a world which took God “six days” to create is changed, transformed, “transposing” (as in a shift of key in music) in the space of “an hour.” It was Christ’s “hour” of his passion and resurrection that released indescribable energies to lift the world’s guilt and heal the rift between God and his children. “An hour” in which Jesus broke the satanic “principalities and powers” oppressing the human family. “An hour,” therefore, which makes “transposing” possible, energizing the transposition of the world from a condition of “Paradise Lost” to the potential for Paradise Regained.

Prayer speaks the language of the “hour” and of the “transposing.” It flows out of the one and celebrates the other. In prayer we invoke the authority of Christ’s “hour” and follow the logic of the “transposing” work in the world. Everything we ask for in prayer, everyone we pray for, it is to bring all into the renewal of Christ’s transposing of the world. In fact prayer, says George Herbert, is “the six-days world transposing in an hour.”…

The question is – to put it as plainly as we can – if Christ broke the satanic power by his “hour” on the cross and resurrection, how can we account for present wickedness and the demonic in the world? Indeed the forces of evil seem if anything to grow more audacious and ingenious with the passing of time. If this is a pressing question for us, how much more was it for those young churches in Asia Minor towards the end of the first century AD, conscious of the Domitian persecution boiling up over their heads. Where is Christ’s victory over Satan while Caesar (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Milosevic, etc.) is slaughtering the innocent?

We find the answer in Revelation chapter 12. It opens with what is the essence of spiritual warfare on earth, with all the appearance of a hopelessly unequal contest: a pregnant woman against a dragon (12:1-4). Nothing could be more defenceless than this mother and her newborn child. She is the messianic community, the Church, and her labour pains are the dangers and sufferings endured by the true Israel as they await the advent of their kingly redeemer (Galatians 4:24-27). She is the Church in touch with “the powers of the coming age” (Hebrews 6:5)….

The Satan-dragon must, above all things, snuff out the threat to his domination posed by the woman’s Christ-child. As God continuously creates the cosmos, Satan strives to destroy it. As God created all things good and beautiful, the devil distorts and perverts them. God plants a field of wheat, and the devil strews it with weeds. Above all else, Satan strives to dishonor and discredit God, to deface his image in humankind.

Imagine, then, the demonic fury when there appears in the midst of the human family an individual who perfectly carries the divine image in his truly human nature. He does so on behalf of all humanity and as their saving representative. Hence the chaotic panic in the fallen spiritual of “rulers and powers” (Ephesians 6:12). Small wonder the dragon “stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born (Revelation 12:4)….

There is a power, which overcomes the Great Dragon, but is so extraordinary that Satan himself utterly misunderstood it. Tot the hate-ridden demonic mind, Christ had surely fallen under his enemies’ control when they nailed him to the cross. Now surely the dragon devours the child-redeemer. Crucifixion not only killed its victim but also utterly humiliated him, obliterating his reputation. Crucifixion allowed the caprice and sadism of the executioners full rein. On the cross the total force of satanic spite slammed into Christ’s defenceless body….

But the cross totally outwitted Satan. It has a wisdom and a power incomprehensible to the fallen spiritual powers (1 Corinthians 2:8). Thus an event, which happened in AD 33 outside Jerusalem, is described by John in terms of its impact in the spiritual realm: “And there was war in heaven” (Revelation 12:7). The chaos-dragon, in its serial incarnations from Babylon to Rome and down to our own times, is defeated and ruined by the Christ it crucified (vv. 7-9). It is a moment, or “an hour,” precisely marked with the hymn beginning “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God” (v. 10). Christians believe that world history hinges on what happened in Christ’s “hour.”…

To summarize: Christ decisively defeated Satan in his “hour.” Where men and women believe in Jesus they share in the cry of joy that permeates the New Testament: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, the power of Satan has been broken!” But God allows the Evil One to continue in existence fatally wounded, crazed with frustration, its time running out. Take him with utmost seriousness because his remaining destructiveness is directed against the Church. Satan loathes and fears the Church for her truth. She is entrusted with the truth that sets the world free. Only the Church understands what is going on in the cosmic warfare, she can name names, she can expose Satan for the doomed and damned creature he is, she holds divine revelation, the scriptures, under the Holy Spirit of “wisdom and revelation.” She worships and proclaims “our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). Satan dreads the Church when she is true to her truth, … “the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14).

Notice carefully the significance for us of the next image in the Revelation 12 vision. The mortally damaged serpent pursues “the woman” spewing a jet of water out of its mouth to “sweep her away with a torrent” (vv. 13-15). It spews a torrent of lies, negative propaganda, malicious rumours (think of the glee with which the national media seize upon instances of Christian failure or decline in church attendance figures) to discredit Christ and his truth incarnated his Christian people. It is a war of ideas for hearts and minds and the Church is in the middle of it: the focus of it. This is the point: a Church which holds the truth entrusted to her, constantly meditating in it and applying it in practice, teaching and proclaiming it, is essential to the wholeness of society. “You are the salt of the earth.” But we can expect the forces of darkness to hate us for it. Prayer for the world should begin with prayer for the Church to be true to her truth.

We need protection. Christ has set his Name upon us: “In my name they will drive out demons” (Mark 16:17)…. We are saying that in the struggle to hold to, and to communicate the truth of, Christ, prayer is first a deliberate clothing of the Church with the protecting name of Christ. Against the vast and insidious outpouring of illusions and distortions in the life of our society only such prayer will guard the mind and hold us faithful, strong, clear and resourceful in the Truth. It follows that our prayers for Christ’s transposing of the world will have a dimension of “deliverance” about them.

Day Nine: A KIND OF TUNE, WHICH ALL THINGS HEAR AND FEAR

Engine against the Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Today I hope to speak a bit about prayer, poetry and hymnody.

Dennis Lennon comments about Herbert’s “a kind of tune”:

Our teacher has music on his mind. In the previous metaphor prayer is the world “transposing” into a different key; now it is a “kind of tune”; universally heard and “feared,” as respect or as dread. His biographer mentions that Herbert’s “chiefest recreation was music, in which heavenly art he was a most excellent master, and did himself compose many divine hymns and anthems which he set and sung to his lute or viol. Twice a week he walked to Salisbury to attend worship at the cathedral, occasions he referred to as “his heaven on earth.”

I imagine him walking along the lanes and across the meadows from Bemerton to Salisbury, hearing “a kind of tune” coming out of the cathedral – bells, orchestras, organ, choirs, chanting and singing. Did the experience suggest to his mind prayer as something already on the move in the air around him, inviting his prayer? …

Twice, I confess, my wife and I have made the pilgrimage between Salisbury and Bemerton, stopping midway for cream tea at the Old Mill at Harnham. But I must also confess that I do not find George Herbert’s poetry “sings” well in a congregational setting. It’s no accident perhaps that few of his lyrics make it into Anglican hymnals, and perhaps his best hymn, “Let All the Earth in Every Corner Sing” is good but not great, an emerald perhaps but not a diamond.

Why is this? Well, for one thing, English church music of the sort Herbert trekked to was an aristocratic art, with evensong anthems and plainsong for cathedral choirs. Herbert’s lute and viol were lovely instruments for Elizabethan quartets or a chamber orchestra with solo voices, but not for farmers gathering on Sunday morning. Herbert was himself an aristocrat, and while he delighted in “outlandish” proverbs and riddles, his poetry is dense and “metaphysical”; like “Prayer,” one has to stop and meditate on it rather than sing it through.

Secondly, while the English Prayer Book owes much to the genius of Thomas Cranmer, congregational singing was straitjacketed by the Calvinist conviction that only biblical texts, the Psalms in particular, were appropriate for Sabbath worship, and congregations for two centuries were nurtured on the jejune metrical versions of Sternhold and Hopkins. For this reason, there was a musical imbalance between the lyrics of the “sweet singer of Israel” and the “hymns and spiritual songs” of the New Testament church (Ephesians 5:19).

Lennon comments further:

There is no question where the cosmic hymn originates: at the empty tomb. As though the angel struck a tuning fork and stood it on “the great stone” rolled back, sending its note singing through all of space and time: Christ is risen! Prayer is “a kind of tune which all things hear and fear” is first and last Christ’s prayer. He stands in the midst of his earthly family gathering us up into his worship offered eternally to the Father.

The great age of English hymnody was waiting for poets of a more democratic and non-conformist temper. Their hymnody was not only better suited to congregational singing, but it introduced Gospel themes about Christ’s birth (“Hark the herald Angel sings!” – Charles Wesley), death (“When I survey the wondrous Cross” – Isaac Watts), Resurrection (“He is Risen” – Cecil Frances Alexander), and Ascension (“Jesus Shall Reign Where e’er the Sun” – Watts again), the Great Commission (“Shine, Jesus Shine – Graham Kendrick), and the Church Triumphant (“Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, Zion City of Our God” – John Newton).

None of which is to say that George Herbert’s poetry may not touch the heartstrings of his readers. I have already mentioned “Love III” as perhaps the greatest religious lyric ever. Another example of Herbert’s inner tunefulness comes in “The Flower,” which celebrates the rebirth of nature, of the soul, of poetic inspiration, and of eternal life:

How Fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! even as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own domain,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.

Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

These are thy wonders, Lord of power,
Killing and quickening, bringing down to hell
And up to heaven in an hour;
Making a chiming of a passing-bell,
We say amiss,
This or that is:
Thy word is all, if we could spell.

O that I once past changing were;
Fast in thy Paradise, where no flower can wither!
Many a spring I shoot up fair,
Offering at heaven, growing and groaning thither:
Nor doth my flower
Want a spring-shower,
My sins and I joining together;

But while I grow to a straight line;
Still upwards bent, as if heaven were mine own,
Thy anger comes, and I decline:
What frost to that? what pole is not the zone,
Where all things burn,
When thou dost turn,
And the least frown of thine is shown?

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: O my only light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.

These are thy wonders, Lord of love,
To make us see we are but flowers that glide:
Which when we once can find and prove,
Thou hast a garden for us, where to bide.
Who would be more,
Swelling through store,
Forfeit their Paradise by their pride.

Whatever one’s musical taste, Herbert’s depiction of prayer as a cosmic tune is an essential message for our age. I sometimes think as I observe people today importing music through their iPods: Do they ever sing-along, do they hum a tune or whistle it out loud? Is the tune of creation and glory getting through? I am not so sure.

Lennon concludes of Christ’s new song:

These are creation’s sudden and surprising gifts in a world turned praising toward her Lord, uttering her “kind of tune which all things hear and fear.” But a steady bombardment of irreverence and derision threatens to overwhelm her canticle, or rather, our ability to detect it. She looks to us for our partnership, indeed for our leadership in the work of praise….

The beautiful God should be celebrated beautifully. It was a war-cry in the early church that “Everything good, everything beautiful belongs to us (Justin). Beautiful things whisper their “kind of tune,” their witness to the loveliness of their Lord. It is part of our stewardship to promote and celebrate the beautiful as pointers to God and to be on our guard against the cult of ugliness and pessimism out which no canticle rises to God.

Day Ten: SOFTNESS, AND PEACE, AND JOY, AND LOVE, AND BLISS

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise,

The second stanza, like the proverbial March lion, came in with siege-tower but goes out with a “kind of tune.” The third stanza expands the sense of coming bliss yet further. March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation or Lady Day, signals that the “spring of souls” is not far away.

A quarter century ago, my wife and daughter stood for hours in the queue in Cambridge to get into the Lessons and Carols service at King’s College, and each year we recall that event when we watch the service on Christmas Eve. The service begins in the dusky half-light of the British bleak mid-winter seeping through the stained-glass and ends in darkness with one glowing image: of Rubens’ “Adoration of the Magi.” Rubens’ Madonna is, characteristically for Rubens, full-bodied, dare I say buxom, as she displays the Christ-child to all in attendance: “Joy to the World, the Lord is come!”

“Softness” is the word that sets this stanza to dancing.

Dennis Lennon continues:

The liveliest sounds in the whole sonnet are in this line. A cluster of five small facets, simple and enchanted, it reads like a poetic child’s description of a moonlit walk through snow. Lovers, also, are known to use expressions similar to “softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss.”

Had George Herbert spoken of prayer more conventionally as, say, “true, and right, and good, and wise” we would have no choice but to take his word for it. But “softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss” are felt qualities, either we know them through the senses or they cannot be known at all. They are taken in through the skin and body, as well as through the mind. “Softness…and bliss” carry their own conviction and the evidence of their reality with them like a scent, a kiss, a sacrament.

Some readers may wish to bale out at this point. Some believe the idea of prayer as a sensuous experience should carry a severe health warning. Did we not take in with our mother’s milk the principle that in matters of faith “feelings” are not to be trusted an inch? We were taught to take our stand on what God has said and not on the state of our moods and emotions when praying. The wisdom of that advice is unassailable, and yet numbers of us have discovered over the years that prayer can become a chilly, cerebral affair, strong on the knowledge of biblical foundations for prayer, but emotionally threadbare. Is it credible that the Holy “Spirit of wisdom and revelation” would enlighten our inner world to “give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (Ephesians 1:17; 2 Corinthians 4:6) without it registering throughout our psychological and emotional life? Herbert doesn’t think so. There is an experience of God in prayer that can be described as “softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss.” Perhaps our ways of knowing and encountering the Lord need to expand to respond to the full repertoire and range of his self-revelation….

A moment’s reflection on the motivations of our prayer-life may reveal how self-interested much of it is, and in that sense how “un-pure” prayer can be. What we are calling “pure” prayer is at the service of the divine love. It is in harmony with it: a simple adoration in which we tell the Lord that we understand what he is saying, his gift to us in Christ, and the love with which he loves us. We tell him that by his love we have been awakened to love, and how we long to love him more. In “pure” prayer we will attempt (however poorly) to make a sincere answer to his word in order to show that we have understood him. Of all things, a lover desires the beloved to understand what he is saying.

There will be, therefore, an element of “pointlessness” about pure prayer because it is giving thanks when there is nothing to be gained by doing so. Thus it was for the healed leper who returned to seek Jesus the healer, “praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him” (Luke 17:15-16); also the healed blind man on his knees before Jesus, crying “Lord, I believe” (John 9:38). In both cases (and the New Testament is full of examples) their exuberant praise was, from a practical point of view, a waste of time and energy. They each already had their healing. Pure glorifying prayer is utterly uncalculating on the grace of God or channelling it even toward worthy ends. But how very modern is Judas’ indignation at a woman’s “pointless” outpourings of love in her “expensive perfume” lavished on Jesus’ feet. There is such a contemporary ring to Judas’ pseudo-compassionate, efficient, business-like and “reasonable” protest. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages” (John 12:1-5)….

It is the form of prayer that Jesus praised above all others; contemplative-meditative prayer as exemplified by Mary, Martha’s sister. However irksome to our natural activism, we must side with Mary who “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said,” while Martha was “distressed by all the preparations” (Luke 10:38-42). Listening-contemplative-meditative prayer must be given first place in the spiritual discipline of our personal lives, because listening (not doing) is the first worship God requires of  us: “Hear now (Shema!) O Israel.” Action – fruitful within the purposes of God – will follow on from listening prayer, but without it we will take ourselves far too seriously, and shoulder too many burdens in our own strength….

Also it is by the cultivation of contemplative-prayer that we are able to fulfil the puzzling command to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) with what is literally “unceasing prayer.” Puzzling, because very difficult to do (as well as being dangerous and probably illegal) in a hectic life of handling machines, and babies, driving a car, and crossing busy roads. Some recommend that we can obey the injunction by practising the discipline of the Eastern “Jesus Prayer,” in ceaseless repetition (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”). Others warn that they find the process disturbing and slightly schizophrenic. But Mary’s meditative prayer, pondering the Lord’s words and love, brings with it a picture of the presence of the Lord forming in the memory for the imagination to work on. In that sense we “pray continually” in that the Lord is everywhere present to our inner world.

The result, says Urs von Balthasar, is “rather in the way a man is always and everywhere influenced by the image of the woman he loves,” which brings us back to “softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss.”

Next week we continue with “Exalted manna, gladness of the best.”