Turning the Diamond: George Herbert on Prayer, Day Four

Mizeki pilgrimage.jpg


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;

He who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster
Let him in constancy follow the Master
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim

John Bunyan, “To Be a Pilgrim

Dennis Lennon, Turning the Diamond, continues his commentary:

Another turn of the diamond, another image of prayer. How to unriddle “The soul in paraphrase”? Begin with the part we understand: “paraphrase” is a free rendering of a statement expressing its sense in different words. By analogy, your soul is your “statement” to God and to the world; prayer is the free rendering, the expansion and the amplification, of your soul-statement.

But not everyone will greet this news with unbridled enthusiasm for fear that “expansion” threatens serenity. Our two earlier explorations of prayer as banqueting among angels, and as “becoming younger than yourself,” honoured the interior life. But talk of “paraphrasing” suggests disruption and un-rooting. The soul as demolition site does not sit easily with inner calm….

The first thing to note is how in half-a-dozen words George Herbert gives the essence of Christian living as movement, with prayer as the engine room of that movement. Just as we cannot not breathe, so we cannot not move, and remain Christian. Static prayer is an absurdity, like a songbird afraid of heights. In the spiritual life standing still is already going back for it refuses the reason for our existence, our high calling in Christ (Philippians 3:12-14). Augustine suggested that our perfection consists in knowing that we are not perfect: we are people still in the making as we walk on.

Before considering what “paraphrasing the soul” means, first a comment about paraphrasing words, especially the words of prayers printed in scripture…. Scripture serves like a thriving maternity-ward, producing prayers out of fertile mother-texts, that is, when our prayers come to birth out of (paraphrased out of) scripture…. When we do clothe our needs in biblical utterances it means we are not the first to do it. Somewhere in the ancient world a man or woman in a crisis coined a cry from the heart, which fits our own crisis…. We can trust scripture to be “on the right wavelength” and to be “getting through” as the Spirit reaches out to us from his side by his inspired revelation….,

But George Herbert speaks of prayer not as words in paraphrase but as “the soul” in paraphrase. What is this stuff called “soul”?

The first thing to note is that we do not, none of us, have a soul. We are a soul, a “living being” (Genesis 2:7)…. The soul is “man empowered by God.” It is “person” or personality, the radical force of character. Soul is mind, but not in our usual restricted sense of the reasoning faculty only…. Soul-mind includes everything that constitutes and colours the essence of a person: thought, felt-thought, emotion, perception, interest, and inclination. It is this essence which when paraphrased – expounded, amplified, extended in the overflow of a free rendering – becomes prayer….

We turn to our Lord Jesus for the definitive demonstration of prayer as the “soul in paraphrase.” The first thing we notice about him is his complete integrity. He is what he prays. He stands fully, in all his powers, behind the words he utters… With Jesus everything moves together in the same direction, will, emotion, intellect, decisions, action. Here is sublime paraphrasing, an expanding free rendering of this essence: his body broken as bread, his blood poured out as wine for the life of the world. His cross is his prayer in the language of wood and iron.

With us it is sadly different for not everything moves together in the same direction…. On the surface of the mind we utter our prayers, while beneath the surface our selfish energies and vanities move in their own very different direction. Only one power can save by healing and reintegrating our torn interior life: love. And only the Holy Spirit of love can reach under the root of our being and there pour in his life and love into our hearts….

Prayer is also “the heart in pilgrimage.” The heart, like the soul is not a “thing” as in popular imagining. The heart is the soul, the living being, the person, in action…. The heart carries within it a feeling of something like homesickness. A sense of unease and impermanence in this world; fragments of a haunting memory of an enchanting place to which we belong. It is as though the Father sends a signal from out of eternity to his children in this world; we lock on to it and follow it home…. Therefore our most vital spiritual preparation each day will be to attune our hearts to the Father’s incoming rhythms….

Herbert is saying the pilgrimage is the prayer of the heart; prayer is “the heart in pilgrimage.” Prayer is not, as we are prone to think, one aspect of the pilgrimage along with numerous others. The act of a life walking through the world to the Father, step-by-step and day-by-day in Christian obedience, constitutes prayer. Everything in this journeying is prayer. Once again we sense Herbert’s ability to reconcile and heal the deeply felt split in our minds between the sacred and the secular. Everything in our lives is drawn into the walk, breathing its praise and prayer to the Father with every step taken.

Noah provides a striking example of the sacredness of the secular when rendered up to God. Noah “walked with God” (Genesis 6:9)…. In the act of cutting wood, in hammering nails, and with every lick of paint for the ark, Noah was walking with God. Receive the work before you this day, all your work, not just religious acts (that split again!) as your pilgrimage, and let the whole-hearted completion of the work be your prayer.


In reading this verse about the heart in pilgrimage, I could not but think of John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan, born five years before Herbert’s death, might seem an odd match: Herbert, the cultured Anglican Orator of Cambridge, Bunyan the non-conformist tinker of Bedford. Yet in the last years before his premature death, Herbert shed all those honors to become a humble parish priest in service of “My Master.” One might compare Bunyan’s soul in paraphrase in “To Be a Pilgrim” with Herbert’s “Come my Way, my Truth, my Life.”