Last Sunday Veronica spoke to us about the Torah and she explained how in ancient biblical times the various regulations and practices which sprang up in addition to the central Law were like a fence round it to make sure that its precepts were not broken. She went to say that for Christians, the practice of prayer works in a similar way, opening up our lives to regular conversation with God, to self-examination and self-discipline which helps to prevent us from going against His will.
At the end of her talk she introduced us to George Herbert’s wonderful poem, Prayer (I). This dovetails very nicely with the point we have reached on our journey through the Eucharist - the Intercessions - and allows me to pause and take a closer look at Herbert’s poem.
This single stanza poem is made from a succession of images, almost as if it were smoke wafting from a fire, like incense, perhaps. The images drift, rising and falling, each leaving its effect on our senses as much as on our minds. Perhaps this is a little like our own experiences of prayer outside the formal liturgies of a service, when we drift, taken here and there with a succession of private thoughts and feelings. I will take just two of Herbert’s phrases and try to bring them into focus for a moment.
Talk of incense leads me naturally to the image in the last line - ‘land of spices.’ After my mother died I came across one of her letters home from Africa, describing her entrance by ship into the port of Tanga, on the coastal border between Kenya and what was then called Tanganyika. She sailed past Zanzibar, and from the ship’s deck she caught the scent of the spices grown on the island wafting across the sea. It spoke to her of the mystery of Africa and the perfumed beauty of the land.
For Herbert. prayer transports us into the mystery of the presence of God as if that presence were like a banquet. Everyone knows that the smell of food sets us salivating in anticipation of a delicious meal, and that spices above all give us that special piquancy, that transporting otherness, which lifts the ordinary and makes it heavenly, allowing at the same time the true taste to come through. That’s why some churches use incense - to remind us of the sensual nature of life in God’s presence. And when we are in that presence, we can expect to be fed not with ordinary food but with ‘exalted manna’ - softness, peace, joy, love, bliss.
You may remember that in a recent sermon we heard how Christ himself is our manna, and how when we meet with him and have fellowship with him in the celebration of the Eucharist, we are truly making our home with him, and he with us. So prayer is the anticipation of this enjoyment of the full presence of God. It is full of savour and sweetness, full of flavour - life at its richest and deepest and most real.
If spices touch on the contemplative, sensual side of prayer, “Engine against th’ Almighty, sinners’ tower” takes us in a rather different direction. Herbert, writing in the 1630s, knew nothing of the internal combustion engine. However the word ‘engine’, as well as meaning ‘mechanical contrivance’ also means ingenuity, artfulness, trickery - qualities which might well be found in machines of war such as the siege-engine with which Herbert would have been familiar. A tower, laying siege to heaven, hurling prayers as if from a catapult - this somewhat aggressive image suggests to me a way of praying that is worlds away from the polite requests we Anglicans like to make in our ‘appropriate’ language.
Do you let your emotions rage when you pray? Do you besiege heaven? Do you howl in anger against God? Do you cry? Do you laugh or shout for joy? Or do you think that the body and all its emotions should be kept well out of it? Have you read the book of Job recently? Or the story of Abraham and Sarah? Genesis 21. v6: “God brought me to laughter and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”
Intercession - an entreaty on behalf of another - is an essential part of the the church’s ministry. But do we always have to be so polite about it, even in public? Herbert’s poem opens up for us the idea that there are many ways of praying. We are all different from each other with different preferences and different styles. There is some exciting work to be done as a church together exploring different ways and styles of praying, in different moods and modes and postures. Indeed we may begin this very day - instead of our normal intercessions, let me take you through a short exercise which might encourage you to enjoy your time with God in a different way, and might also give you a sense of what it is to be enjoyed by God too.
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, sinners’ tower,
Reversèd 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.
George Herbert (1593 - 1633)
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