Turning the Diamond: George Herbert on Prayer, Day 11

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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 drest,
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise,

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

The second stanza, or so it seems to me, begins with warfare, contention, even against God Himself, and ends with irresistible tunefulness, something Adam and Eve rejoiced to hear in Eden (“the world, so great, so wunderbar, is Thy handiwork”). In the third stanza we travel on the wings of prayer upward and outward on a mystical cloud of softness and bliss into the heavenly realms, somewhat like Ransom’s arrival on Venus in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra.

Yet there is always something very down-to-earth about this journey. So commenting on “heavenly manna,” Dennis Lennon starts us at an apocryphal Jewish restaurant:

When next you dine at your favorite Israeli restaurant, try the manna. You might reflect on its significance to the prophetic mind, and how George Herbert could ever utter “manna” in the same breath as “gladness of the best.”

[From the menu]:

A sweet sticky substance produced by a number of insects that suck the tender twigs of tamarisk bushes in the desert region of Sinai. The “honeydew excretion” falls to the ground where in the hot desert air, the drops quickly evaporate, leaving a solid residue… early risers can gather the substance for food.

The surprise of linking manna in prayer is cushioned if instead of original, “neat” manna, the chef has served a confection known as “manna from heaven”:

It is made by dissolving the “honeydew excretion” in hot water, straining out the bits of twigs and insects, then cooking it into a thick porridge and adding chopped almonds… a pudding made with the manna cooked to a soft cream…

Almonds and cream indeed! Not according to the Exodus account of Israel’s trek through the desert (Exodus 16:11-16). Yet the psalmist called manna “the grain of heaven…bread of angels” (Psalm 78:24,25). Far from being a wayside snack to keep Israel fueled on her journey to Canaan, the whole purpose of the journey was to bring the people to the manna! (Deuteronomy 8:2-3). So the great forty-year wilderness trek was one long lesson in practical trust….

Apparently God reckoned it was worth every minute of those forty years to wean Israel (she was the representative human family) off the deadly fantasy of life “by bread alone.” [SN: Cue online coronavirus sermon.] He initiates the crisis. With the goodies of Egypt far behind them, and the relative security and prosperity of Canaan a long way ahead of them, he takes Israel into the laboratory of the wilderness. There, away from the shops, the stock market, and the cinemas; away from theoretical classroom religion, life focuses down to a terrible simplicity: can God be trusted with our lives? Is the Lord among us or not! (Exodus 17:7).

Manna is the strange food of God encountered by people on the move in response to his word. It is, says George Herbert, not manna-on-the-ground, under those tamarisk bushes at Sinai, but “Exalted Manna,” for it is the life, grace and power of our risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ.

Prayer is a Bedouin who traverses the wilderness in obedience to God’s word, looking to Christ, our exalted manna, for sustenance. Prayer is our response to those moments of crisis, the danger that we might live by bread alone and the opportunity to choose to live instead by God’s word. By prayer we open up the crisis to Christ’s power and love, in total honesty about our fears and confusions and all the “what ifs” raised by the crisis. By prayer the exalted manna passes into our bodies, hearts and minds and amazingly we find ourselves going joyfully with our Lord.

Curiously, Dennis Lennon does not examine carefully the second part of the verse – “gladness of the best” – which strikes me as strangely, if at all, connected to “exalted manna.”

“Gladness” is a tricky word; it can suggest superficiality – “so glad to see you” – or even hypocrisy, as in “glad-handing.” The Bible has no one word for it, but I think “cheerfulness” comes closest. Forget about the stewardship sermon: “God loves a hilarious giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Good cheer does not so much guffaw as smile. Gladness looks smilingly for “the best.”

When I think of “gladness of the best,” I think of my wife Peggy. In our family photos over the years, the whole brood may be scowling, or looking at the ground, or offering forced smiles for the camera – all but one, who smiles naturally. When I met her in our mid-teens, I, premature skeptic that I was, was intrigued: I don’t know what makes this girl tick, but whatever it is, I want it, I mean I want her, for myself. And by God’s prevenient grace, she saw the best in me. Peggy’s natural gift has seasoned over the years, and in her prayers, but much is the same: “You always see the good in people,” one friend recently commented.

Many of us pray regularly for “problem people,” for “hard nuts to crack” in our family or acquaintance. It is hard not to become wizened like Israel in the desert: “What, manna again today!” “Gladness of the best” does not give up, indeed greets each such prayer with cheer. Like love, gladness “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, never gives up” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8a).

One might extend this gladness outward to the world more generally. Paul concludes his advice to the Philippians with this: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

So maybe “gladness of the best” is the point of living by exalted manna alone. George Herbert captures this glad spirit in his poem on “Gratefulness,” not surprisingly one of my wife’s favorites:

Thou who hast given so much to me
Give me one more thing, a grateful heart….

Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy praise.

Tomorrow we move to sartorial matters: “heaven in ordinary, man well-drest.”