Do you ever feel as though you are praying into a void? As though either God isn’t there to hear you or you aren’t praying in a way to make connection? It’s a preoccupation of my favorite religious poet, 17th century Anglican vicar George Herbert. An essay by Jennifer Michael at the University of the South has given me a new way to look at the issue.
In an article in the Sewanee Theological Review*, Jennifer points out that the words we use to pray always feel inadequate. Herbert’s words take him to the “contemplative silence” that lies beyond words and it is into this silence that God steps. Herbert feels the agony of of how the words come up short, but Jennifer argues that his agony in the end is a good thing. In feeling wounded by what he perceives as his inadequate response to God’s call, Herbert learns to be humble. Only when his pride is broken down does he find God.
Keep this process in mind as you read “Longing,” a Herbert poem that Jennifer alerted me to. It is an agonized cry from someone who feels that he’s not being heard. “Shall he that made the ear/Not hear?” he asks:
By George Herbert
With sick and famished eyes,
With doubling knees and weary bones,
To thee my cries,
To thee my groans,
To thee my sighs, my tears ascend:
My throat, my soul is hoarse;
My heart is withered like a ground
Which thou dost curse.
My thoughts turn round,
And make me giddy; Lord, I fall,
From thee all pity flows.
Mothers are kind, because thou art,
And dost dispose
To them a part:
Their infants, them; and they suck thee
Bowels of pity, hear!
Lord of my soul, love of my mind,
Bow down thine eare!
Let not the wind
Scatter my words, and in the same
Look on my sorrows round!
Mark well my furnace! O what flames,
What heats abound!
What griefs, what shames!
Consider, Lord; Lord, bow thine ear,
Lord Jesu, thou didst bow
Thy dying head upon the tree:
O be not now
More dead to me!
Lord hear! Shall he that made the ear,
Behold, thy dust doth stir,
It moves, it creeps, it aims at thee:
Wilt thou defer
To succor me,
Thy pile of dust, wherein each crumb
To thee help appertains.
Hast thou left all things to their course,
And laid the reins
Upon the horse?
Is all locked? hath a sinners’ plea
Indeed the world’s thy book,
Where all things have their leaf assigned:
Yet a meek look
Thy board is full, yet humble guests
Thou tarriest, while I die,
And fall to nothing: thou dost reign,
And rule on high,
While I remain
In bitter grief; yet am I still
Lord, didst thou leave thy throne,
Not to relieve? how can it be,
That thou art grown
Thus hard to me?
Were sin alive, good cause there were
But now both sin is dead,
And all thy promises live and bide.
That wants his head;
These speak and chide,
And in thy bosom pour my tears,
Lord JESU, hear my heart,
Which hath been broken now so long,
That ev’ry part
Hath got a tongue!
Thy beggars grow; rid them away
My love, my sweetness, hear!
By these thy feet, at which my heart
Lies all the year,
Pluck out thy dart,
And heal my troubled breast which cries,
To repeat, Jennifer says that wound opened by the prayer expressed in “Longing” is precisely the space into which God can enter. She does acknowledge, however, that this poem ends more uncomfortably than some.
For instance, in “Denial,” which has the same theme (I’ve posted on it here), Herbert doesn’t end with dying but with a vision of hope, captured in the concluding rhyme:
O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rime.
Anyway, next time you are worried that you are just mouthing a prayer rather than really meaning it, be reassured. As Jennifer writes, “Prayer for Herbert seems a way of schooling the speech of the tongue so that it is fit to taste of the mystery.” You can’t be schooled if you feel you know it all already.
*Jennifer’s article, “Silence and ‘Wounded Speech’ in Herbert’s Poetry,” appeared in Sewanee Theological Review’s issue on Literature and Christianity (52:4, Michaelmas 2009).
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