Prayer, By George Herbert
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.
The term, “ora et labora”, pray and work, is not just for monks – but we may tend to think it is! But surely, you may respond, it is for the superheroes of prayer, the monks and nuns who go about (we think) praying as they attend to their daily routine. I am sure those called to the religious life, try to do this. But there is no reason why we should not all practice it. Lent can be a very good time to try to get into the habit of so living. Pray and work is a request to all of us to wake up to the present moment whenever we can and be aware of the invitation in that moment to be conscious of what God is offering and how we are responding.
I had an experience of waking up this morning when I was standing in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil. For no obvious reason I woke up to the sense of impatience inside myself as I waited and at the same moment, the knowledge that I had “blanked” the rest of the world: the lovely view of the dawn light through my kitchen window and the sense of quietness that bathed the scene; the trees against the sky, the squirrel confidently foraging in the grass under the bird table. In that moment I was aware both of myself and of God: my hurrying self, always impatient, always rushing to the next thing, valuing some things in my life as important and others as chores to be got through as quickly as possible. I was also reminded of what is known as the “Slow Movement” which proposes that culturally we should all try to slow down life’s pace so as to experience it more deeply. I responded. I remembered God. I slowed down and gazed out the window, grateful for the loveliness in front of me. That pause remained with me as I later opened my front door and stepped into the world. It was a beautiful, lucid Launde morning and it was God’s gift. It was, in George Herbert’s words, “Heaven in ordinary,” and “something understood,” and as such it was as much prayer as any time spent in chapel.
The experience I describe above is familiar to most of us, I imagine. Moments of waking into consciousness of what actually is rather than what only is in my head. We can’t, of course, make these moments happen. They are always a gift that seems to come from outside ourselves. But we can help ourselves to so prepare that these moments are more likely to happen. We do this through the daily prayer of quietness (contemplation / meditation), through “pondering” (giving ourselves space and time to do nothing – to waste time with God), through the Examen (a daily evening prayer of reflecting on the day we have just had and asking ourselves where God was in our day). Prayer is “the Church’s Banquet”, as George Herbert describes it, full of rich ways of approaching God and allowing him to approach us, which are not just about the prayer time but affect the whole day.
Prayer is work. It is sometimes hard and gruelling or dry and unfulfilling but practiced it becomes more a part of ourselves and second nature, so that we are more likely to pray and work. As this happens our eyes are opened and we see more and more often that God is in the ordinary, the everyday. God’s voice calling us and calling us to delight in him, in his creation – and strangely enough, even in ourselves.