Thursday, March 16, 2017

A thorny problem

A long time ago, in galaxy far far from here, I had this kind of idea that to be a priest meant to know about prayer...Clergy surely spent most of their time engaged in it, becoming experts as the years went on. For them, this mysterious business of opening ourselves daily to a relationship with God was second-nature, as easy and un-selfconscious as breathing.
Then I was ordained, and realised that the only advantage clergy have in this is the expectation laid on us to practice prayer regularly, through the framework of the Daily Office, the realisation that to share a "cure of souls" makes you as vulnerable and anxious about those souls as the parents of a new-born baby are about their infant, and that there is absolutely no possibility that we have a hope of doing or being all that is expected of us without consciously involving God at every single turn.
That doesn't mean we have it a friend once remarked "If you want to make your vicar look wretchedly uncomfortable, as him about his prayer life"....and when I revisited this poem a little while after ordination, having spent so much time with it from an English Lit perspective years ago, I was encouraged that just as when Jesus is trying to pin down the Kingdom of God in terms that the crowd might gather he talks all round it ("it's a BIT like a treasure in the field...or a lost coin...or ...") so Herbert, now held up as a model priest in the best traditions of the parish system, gives us a range of equally diffuse metaphors when he speaks of prayer. I'll explore some of them over the next few days, all being well - but meanwhile, here's the whole poem.

Prayer the church's banquet, Angel's age,
God's 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' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
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.

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