Turning the diamond: George Herbert on Prayer, Day 10


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.”