Praying the Hours (1): “Reclaiming my time”

Book of Hours (c. 1475)

I wasted time and now time doth waste me.  

— William Shakespeare, Richard II

The Abba Moses asked Abba Silvanus, “Can a person every day make a beginning of the good life?” The Abba Silvanus answered him, “If he be diligent, he can every day and every hour begin the good life anew.” 

Sayings of the Desert Fathers      

When wrongdoers are questioned by congressional committees, they try to evade self-incrimination through rambling, irrelevant responses to pointed questions. Since each committee member is given very limited time to interrogate a witness, those who have something to hide try to “run out the clock,” hoping that time will expire before the truth can be revealed. A skillful questioner will shut down such verbal evasions with a parliamentary phrase: “Reclaiming my time.”  Whenever those words are uttered, the witness must cease to babble, allowing the questioner to attempt a more productive use of the allotted time. 

I love that phrase—“Reclaiming my time”—for its spiritual implications. It seems a perfect description of the ancient spiritual practice of “praying the hours”—setting aside certain moments or periods of each day to reclaim our time from whatever is wasting it. I don’t mean wasting in the sense of failing to perform ceaseless labors of “doing” rather than “being.” An hour daydreaming in the hammock, reading poetry or playing the guitar is not misspent, however much the voices within or without may cry, “Get back to work!” No, by wasting time I mean the failure to enjoy its fullness or attend to its depth. I mean forgetting the sheer wonder of being here in this moment, this story, this life. I mean failing to understand that time, as W. H. Auden reminds us, “is our choice of how to love and why.”[i]

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all developed cyclical prayer practices for reclaiming time. Through words, music, attentive silence and bodily postures, the faithful pause periodically during the day to remember, praise and thank the divine Source in whom we live and move and have our being. Prayer times synchronize the believer’s consciousness with the natural sequence of the day: morning, midday, evening and night. For Christian monastics, for whose life of “unceasing prayer” there were no secular hours, only sacred ones, seven divine “offices” became the norm. The pattern was Scriptural—“Seven times a day I praise you” (Psalm 119:164)—but also natural: the sequence of hours reflects the changes in the quality of light and sound as well as the energy levels of our bodies.

There are seven traditional, or “canonical”[ii] hours. Some of the specific times are variable in accord with changing seasons and differences in latitude, but the “seven times” span the length between waking and retiring. An eighth “hour,” Vigils (or Matins), was combined with Lauds to keep the list at seven, but it really stands apart from the chronology of the waking hours, in the timeless interval between the days, when monastics rise from sleep to dwell prayerfully in the deepest dark of ineffable Mystery. 

Vigils (Midnight or later)          Waiting and reverie
Lauds (4-5 am or daybreak)     Waking
Prime (6 am)                            Beginning
Terce (9 am)                             Doing
Sext (Noon)                              Pausing
None (3 pm)                             Doing
Vespers (Sunset)                      Ending
Compline (Bedtime)               
Surrendering

In the late Middle Ages, devout laypersons created a demand for a portable “Book of Hours”—a sequence of devotional texts and images structured on the monastic daily pattern. For two and a half centuries, these prayer books were the most widely read texts in Europe. But once the sacredness of time was eclipsed by modernity, hours became commodities, acquired and spent in labor and leisure, but no longer burning with divine Presence. Most people no longer “had time”—or inclination—to pause and pray seven times a day. 

If you are ever able to go on retreat to pray the hours with a monastic community, do it, as often as you can. Your relationship with time will be deepened and renewed. But how might we pray the hours when we are on our own in the secular world, immersed in the ordinary circumstances and flow of our lives? Given all the demands on our time and attention, is it possible to forge a sustainable practice?  I believe that it is not only possible, but absolutely necessary, in order to reclaim our time as gift and blessing.

As St. Anselm of Canterbury urged the faithful in the twelfth century: 

“Flee for a while from your tasks, hide yourself for a little space from the turmoil of your thoughts. Come, cast aside your burdensome cares, and put aside your laborious pursuits.… Give your time to God, and rest in the Divine for a little while. Enter into the inner chamber of your mind, shut out all things save God …”[iii]

In a 24/7 world, it’s hard to make any space to shut out “all things.” As Kathleen Deignan writes in her contemporary Book of Hours: “There is no room for the mysterious spaciousness of being, no time for presence, no room for nature, no time for quiet, for thought, for presence.”[iv]

During the many months of pandemic shutdowns and lockdowns, our habitual relationship with time has been significantly disrupted . So many routines which shape our customary lives, like going to work or school, have been altered or cancelled. The annual round of seasonal markers—liturgical celebrations, sporting events, holiday weekends, performing arts series, music festivals, vacation travel, graduations, birthday parties—has suffered a similar fate. Sheltering-in-place homogenizes our waking lives with an enervating sameness. Sometimes I forget what day of the week it is. 

Time blurs and dis-integrates, loses its shape, becomes increasingly subjective as we disconnect from the larger rhythms and measures of season, cosmos, and tradition. Our temporality seems less firmly structured by the interplay of memory and hope, planning and expectation, coming and going, activity and rest, labor and festivity, variety and difference. 

In Martin Amis’ short story, “The Time Disease,” a fear of time itself acts like a virus, attacking the balance that integrates past, present and future in human consciousness. Having lost the capacity to believe themselves part of a meaningful narrative with a redemptive future, people have grown numb to hope, deathly afraid of “coming down with time.” The story, published in 1987, is set in the year 2020! 

COVID-19 reminds us daily of our ephemeral and vulnerable condition: finite, mortal, subject to immense forces beyond our control. At the same time, it has weakened our ritual relation to time, by erasing the recurring collective markers, like the first communal shouts of “Alleluia!” at the end of Holy Week, or the joyous tumult of fireworks at a Fourth of July picnic, which affirm a sense of regularity, continuity and renewal. The future has become radically uncertain. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, much less next year. Fewer of us are making long term plans right now. But it still remains within our power to receive and embrace the gift of this day, this hour, this moment. We can, through conscious practice, sink deeper and deeper into the mystery of being-here-now.

Praying the hours

I am the appointed hour,
The “now” that cuts 
Time like a blade.

— Thomas Merton, “Song: If you seek…”

An hour is not an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates.

— Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way    

Rather than pass the time, we must invite it in. 

— Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project     

In The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous medieval mystic calls us to practice mindfulness: “Be attentive to time and how you spend it. Nothing is more precious. This is evident when you recall that in one tiny moment heaven may be gained or lost. God, the master of time, never gives the future. He gives only the present, moment by moment.”[v]  But such mindfulness is not native to moderns, as Hugh Rayment-Pickard laments:

“We ignore the time that is open to us. We diminish ourselves by wishing time to pass. We are, for the most part, incapable of real concentration. Our days are broken by distraction, scrambled into muddles of chores, errands, impulses, evasions, interruptions and delays, besotted with routine. We characteristically fail to see the ways in which a given period can be expanded, deepened and slowed by the exercise of will and awareness.”[vi]

This condition of un-mindful triviality is good for some laughs in Sarah Dunn’s “A Day in the Life of an American Slacker, circa 1994,” a diaristic parody of the Book of Hours. After rising at noon, the Slacker’s day includes naps, television, café idling and aimless wandering, but also the following highlights:

12:45 p.m.       Plan the world tour you would take if any of your relatives happened to die and handed you a pile of money.

1:52 p.m.         Peruse an op-ed article stating that your generation represents ‘the final exhaustion of civilization.’ Resolve to fire off a scathing yet piquant rebuttal.

2:42 p.m.         [During a commercial break in an episode of “Hogan’s Heroes,” think about starting a new project]: a flow chart in which you … categorize and classify every philosopher throughout time …

After more wandering, napping, drinking, and all of 17 minutes dedicated to “hunker down with Schopenhauer,” the Slacker’s day concludes: 

11:05 p.m.       Return home.
11:30 p.m.       Putter around your room.
11:48 p.m.       Rake the sand in your Zen rock garden.
12:15 a.m.       Alphabetize your cassettes.
12:33 a.m.       Practice your dart game.
1:00 a.m.         Assume the fetal position for late night infomercial viewing.
1:26 a.m.         Stare near-crippling bout of existential angst in the face.
1:57 a.m.         Once again, glorious sleep.[vii]   

Will time so waste us? Or can we restore our souls—and our daily experience— with an attentive, receptive relation to temporality, and the eternity from which it springs? As the monastic communities discovered while the ancient world was collapsing all around them, praying the hours at the beginning, middle, and end of each day is a deeply transformative practice. It changes the quality of the day, and it changes us. 

There are a number of excellent contemporary guides to help us pray the hours in our wordly precincts beyond the cloister. In Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day, Br. David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell describe the canonical hours as “seasons”: each stage of the day has its own character, its own virtue, its own meaning: 

“The hours are the inner structure for living consciously and responsively through the stages of the day.… The message of the hours is to live daily with the real rhythms of the day. to live responsively, consciously … We learn to listen to the music of the moment, to hear its sweet implorings, its sober directives.”[viii]

In Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day, Macrina Wiederkehr sees the hours as an antidote for contemporary hurry-sickness: 

“We practice pausing to remember the sacredness of our names, who we are, and what we plan on doing with the incredible gift of our lives—and how we can learn to be in the midst of so much doing.”[ix]

In Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today, Sr. Joan Chittister reminds us that prayer is not a mood but a practice: 

“To pray only when we feel like it is more to seek consolation than to risk conversion. To pray only when it suits us is to want God on our own terms. To pray only when it is convenient is to make the God-life a very low priority in a list of better opportunities. To pray only when it feels good is to court total emptiness when we most need to be filled. The hard fact is that nobody finds time for prayer. The time must be taken. There will always be something more pressing to do, something more important to be about than the apparently fruitless, empty act of prayer. But … without prayer, the energy for the rest of life runs down.”[x]

Grounding ourselves in a daily prayer practice is vital in the best of times. In 2020’s massive tsunami of pandemic, climate disaster, social unrest and political madness, it is a lifesaver, a shelter from the storm. Tossed between the Scylla and Charybdis of high anxiety and profound melancholy, many of us are exhausted or worse. We need proven tools for survival—and renewal. 

This post is the first in a series on praying the hours. Subsequent posts will explore various dimensions and qualities of the hours contained within the day’s three main divisions: Beginning (Vigils, Lauds, Prime); Middle (Terce, Sext, None); and End (Vespers, Compline). The series will conclude with some suggestions for adapting the hours to the diverse and demanding lives we actually live. As Benedictine John Chapman counsels, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”[xi]   

For further reading

Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Norton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976). This classic little volume has 2 pages of prayers and reflections for each of the 24 hours. I have opened this often over the years.

Brother David Steidl-Rast & Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day(Brooklyn, NY: Ulysses Press, 2001). A wise and indispensable treasury of reflections on each of the hours. 

Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008). A thoughtful exploration of the 7 hours, with many excellent texts and thoughts to inspire your own construction of a daily practice. 

Kathleen Deignan, ed., Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007). Contemplative rites for a 7-day cycle for Dawn, Day, Dusk and Dark, consisting entirely of prose and poetic texts by Thomas Merton, with a helpful introduction by Deignan. Much of the imagery is drawn from the natural world surrounding the famous contemplative’s Kentucky hermitage, tincturing the devotions with a deep awareness of the seasons of the day and of the year. 

Joan Chittister OSB, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: Harper One, 1991). Chittister’s attractive Benedictine balance of attention and receptivity provides an accessible foundation for a daily prayer practice.

Mark Barrett OSB, Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008). Another Benedictine offers fruitful and imaginative reflections on each of the canonical hours. 

Kenneth V. Peterson, Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013). This thorough appreciation of the last office of the day blends liturgical history, theology, and personal experience. The perspectives on Compline illumine our approach to all of the hours. Peterson’s website provides glorious examples of Compline choral music discussed in the book: http://prayerasnightfalls.com

World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down (Christian McEwen, Peterborough, NH: Bauhan Publishing, 2011). Not a religious text per se, it invites us into a way of being which is essential for mindful living and praying. It’s delightful reading, celebrating what Thoreau called “the bloom of the present moment.”

Robert Grudin, Time and the Art of Living (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988). A fertile appreciation of our relationship with time, and how to deepen it.

Hugh Rayment-Pickard, The Myths of Time: From St. Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2004). An accessible read on the theology of time. 

Kevin Jackson, The Book of Hours: An Anthology (London/New York/Woodstock NY: The Overlook Press, 2007). A secular celebration of every hour of the day, with a wide range of literary excerpts. While not about prayer or spirituality, it is great fun, and will sharpen your sense of each hour’s aspects.

There are many books and websites with liturgies for praying the hours. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer has daily offices for Morning, Noon, Evening and Compline. A number of other Anglican prayer books can be found at http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/

Roman Catholic rites can be accessed at https://divineoffice.org

Phyllis Tickle’s 3-volume seasonal compilations for the Divine Hours are available from Doubleday.

Forward Movement’s Hour by Hour has 4 daily offices for each day of the week. 

For a much more extensive list of publications and websites, see Kenneth Peterson’s wonderful array of resources in Prayer as Night Falls (listed above), pp. 205-213.

Finally, my 2015 post about time, Tick Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve, a discussion of Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video, The Clock, has some bearing on the subject of praying the hours. 


[i] W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” (1941-42), in Collected Poems (New York: Random House, 1976), 297.

[ii] “Canon” in Greek meant a straight rod, used for measuring or aligning. In Church usage, the word designated right rule, measure, or proper order, as in the biblical canon, canon law, or the canonical hours.

[iii] Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Norton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 42.

[iv] Kathleen Deignan, ed., Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007), 32.

[v] The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous English work of the late 14th century, cited in Robert Grudin, Time and the Art of Living (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988), 92.

[vi] Hugh Rayment-Pickard, The Myths of Time: From St. Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2004), 20.

[vii] Sarah Dunn, “A Day in the Life of an American Slacker, circa 1994,” in The Official Slacker Handbook, cited in Kevin Jackson, The Book of Hours: An Anthology (London/New York/Woodstock NY: The Overlook Press, 2007), 62-64.

[viii] Brother David Steidl-Rast & Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day (Brooklyn, NY: Ulysses Press, 2001).

[ix] Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008), 13.

[x] Joan Chittister OSB, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: Harper One, 1991), 31.

[xi] Mark Barrett OSB, Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008), 26.

How Do We Pray for This President?

Angel and Church pray for the victims of a violent century (mural, c. 1940, Église du Saint-Esprit, Paris).

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

— Matthew 5:44

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

—Romans 12:19-21

In my last post, “Subjected thus”—The President Gets COVID,” I touched on the question of how to pray for the President. Of course we pray in general for all who have been infected by the coronavirus, but regarding specific petitions on the President’s behalf, I wrote: “I will pray that Trump’s time of trial may effect the healing of his soul. If he is going to suffer, may his illness be for him a birth of empathy, compassion, humility and goodness.”

With every passing day, that prayer becomes harder to offer with any conviction. As we witness Trump’s continuing disregard for the safety of others—both those around him and the country at large—we wonder whether he may be past saving. Instead of being humbled by his illness, he has only grown more malicious. The people around him are dropping like flies, and countless Americans will continue to die from his mismanagement. And now we fear that his relentless disparagement of life-saving protocols will kill even more. “Far less lethal!!!” than the flu, he tweets against all evidence. It’s as if he’s shouting to the world, “Hurry up and die!” 

What, then, is our prayer to be for such a man in such a time?

In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, prayers for the sick don’t ask that the ill simply be restored to their former state so they can resume their story exactly where they left off. While those prayers ask for relief from pain, protection from danger, freedom from fear, the banishment of weakness and the gift of healing, they also propose a life transformed by suffering: 

“… enable him to lead the residue of his life in thy fear, and to thy glory.”

“… that, his health being renewed, he may bless your holy Name.”

“… restore to him your gifts of gladness and strength, and raise him up to a life of service to you.”

“… restored to usefulness in your world with a thankful heart.”

“… that he, daily increasing in bodily strength, and rejoicing in your goodness, may order his life and conduct that hemay always think and do those things that please you.” [i]

As for a President and all those in authority, the Prayer Book asks that they be guided by “the spirit of wisdom,” beseeching the “Lord our Governor” to “fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in your fear.”[ii] Would that it were so! But the way things are going, the prayer “For our Enemies” seems more to the point: 

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[iii]

The “and us” is a critical part of this prayer, because we have all, symptomatic or not, been infected by the Trumpist pandemic of hate and cruelty. If we say we have not had a few hateful thoughts in the past four years, the truth is not in us. Resistance to evil and purity of heart are not soul mates or easygoing partners. They must work hard to stay coupled. 

Another timely prayer is the Collect for the Feast of Holy Innocents, when we remember the children of Bethlehem murdered by King Herod (Matthew 2:13-18). The prayer is not concerned with the state of Herod’s soul, but with the damage inflicted by his successors: 

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your 
great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the 
Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[iv]

We are all standing in the need of prayer these days. And even though we can never fully understand what prayer is and what prayer does, prayer “without ceasing” is an essential part of the healing of the world and the perfection of our souls. 

Prayer isn’t like online shopping—placing our order and expecting 2nd-day delivery. It’s not a mechanism for producing outcomes. It’s a relationship, a state of being-with and being-for. It is offering and entrusting ourselves to the One who is “always more ready to hear than we to pray,” who knows “our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking.”[v]

Knowing exactly what to pray for is impossible. We cannot see into the hearts of others, nor can we foresee the future. God only knows what is best. As for our own judgments, perspectives and desires, they can taint the purest prayer. In our essential state of imperfection and unknowing, perhaps the safest petitions are these: “Hold us in your mercy” and “Thy will be done.”

But with regard to more specific petitions for this President, I will be guided by the examples cited from the Book of Common Prayer. I will pray for his suffering to be brief but transformative. I will pray for his power to be guided by wisdom and truth. I will pray that his evil designs be frustrated, and that he (and we) be freed from the grip of hatred, cruelty and revenge. But I must confess that Donald Trump is not easy to pray for.

When I think of the monster who has tortured children in cages and caused countless COVID deaths, I struggle with my anger, my horror, and my disgust. But as I sat in the silence of a moonlit garden before this morning’s dawn, I was given the image of a little boy so damaged, so broken, so unloved, locked deep inside the dungeon of Trump’s psyche seventy years ago—guarded by dragons, hidden from the light, lost to the world. That tragic, wounded, forgotten child is someone I can pray for with my whole heart.


[i] The Book of Common Prayer, according to the use of The Episcopal Church USA (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 458-459.

[ii] BCP, 820.

[iii] BCP, 816.

[iv] BCP, 238.

[v] BCP, Proper 21 (p. 234) and Proper 11 (p. 231).

Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace: George Herbert’s “Denial”

Gianlorenzo Bernini, St. Jerome (Siena Cathedral, 1661-1663). The saint holds the crucifix like a violin.

“Negative grace” . . . is experienced as a game of “take-away,” in which God strips us, removing things that are barriers to a naked confrontation. God takes away distraction after distraction, until our time and space take on the harsh contours of the desert.”

–– W. Paul Jones [i]

Thus in the desert you will find that God is simultaneously present and absent, proximate and remote, visible and invisible, manifest and hidden. God can receive you with great tenderness and then abandon you on the cross of loneliness. God consoles you and torments you at the same time. God heals you only to wound you again. God may speak to you today and ignore you tomorrow.

–– Alessandro Pronzato [ii]

 

Although “Lent” comes from a word for springtime, the season of fresh and abundant growth, its dominant metaphor is the desert, with its connotations of aridity and spareness. The spiritual journey back to the garden must go by way of the desert. Distractions, distortions and comfortable illusions must be stripped away to make room for a grace beyond our own cramped imaginings. As W. Paul Jones puts it, the desert is “a game of take-away.”

As every saint will tell you, the spiritual life is not always satisfaction. Sometimes it is deprivation, a “negative grace” that draws us (or forces us) out of our settled and static states into the disorienting vastness of divine imagination. No longer sheltered by the old complacencies, we experience a lack, an absence, a desolation, which nothing familiar can fill or assuage. In retrospect, we understand this as a necessary passage into a reality richer and deeper than our old “self,” but whenever we are in the midst of the Cloud of Unknowing or lost in the Land of Unlikeness, we are subject to the anguish of abandonment. My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?

George Herbert, whose feast day (February 27) follows Ash Wednesday this year, was a seventeenth-century poet-priest who wrote elegant and moving verse about the motions of the soul and the life of faith. Although honest about his own shortcomings and inner struggles, he was consistently conversant with the God of grace, and his poems were usually grounded in a sense of reliable­­––if sometimes challenging––reciprocity with his Maker and Redeemer.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart as joys in love. (“The Call”)

But even “the holy Mr. Herbert,” as his parishioners called him, spent time in the desert of divine absence and spiritual desolation.  “Denial” is one of his unhappiest poems, lamenting a God who is not only hidden, but unresponsive, seemingly deaf to Herbert’s prayers: “O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue / To cry to thee, / And then not hear it crying!”

The brokenness of the meter matches the poet’s broken heart. As Herbert biographer John Drury notes, “iambs (short-longs) jostle discordantly with trochees (long-shorts). The lines of each verse are, apart from the two minimally two-feet lines, unequal in length (four, two, five, three, two feet). There is near-chaos.” [iii]

In all but the last stanza, the concluding line is dispiriting: “disorder. . . alarms . . . no hearing . . . no hearing . . . discontented.” And each stanza’s ending fails to rhyme with any other line, intensifying the sense of disconnection and alienation from a larger whole. Only the poem’s final line is granted the mending grace of rhyme.

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse:
My breast was full of fears
And disorder:

My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
Of alarms.

As good go anywhere, they say,
As to benumb
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come,
But no hearing.

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untun’d, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipped blossom, hung
Discontented.

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 rhyme.

“But no hearing,” occurring twice at the poem’s center, poses deep crisis for a person of prayer. Yet faith teaches us to bear divine silence patiently. Silence does not always mean absence or indifference. It can, sometimes, be a profounder form of speech. But the fifth stanza adds the image of being unseen to the one of being unheard: “my soul lay out of sight, / Untun’d, unstrung.”

Herbert loved music. It is said that when he was near death, he suddenly rose from his bed and called for one of his instruments, so that he might play and sing for his God. According to Izaak Walton’s account, as he tuned the instrument he prayed, “My God, my God! My music shall find thee. And ev’ry string shall have his attribute to sing.”

So Herbert’s image of the soul as an instrument untuned and forgotten, like the abandoned harps hung on willow trees by the rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137:2), conveys a sense of utter forlornness. “What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see / Thy full-ey’d love!” wrote Herbert in “The Glance.” Such a gaze shall “look us out of pain.” But in “Denial,” God’s “sweet and gracious eye” no longer rests upon him. It no longer sees him at all, as if he doesn’t exist.

Or so it seems to the disconsolate soul. And yet Herbert continues to speak as if God is still there, as if his prayer might still be heard. “O cheer and tune my heartless breast,” he cries, using his favorite musical image for the restoration of the soul’s lost consonance, when “thy favors . . . and my mind may chime” (like bells in harmony) and so “mend my [broken] rhyme.”

That final word puts an end to the discordant lack of rhymed endings in the previous stanzas. Just as the poem’s broken meter signifies the disorder in Herbert’s soul, so this restoration of missing rhyme anticipates the grace of a mended life. Furthermore, the double meaning of the last word (“rhyme” was sometimes spelled “rime,” which also means frost) suggests an additional connotation of renewal:  the heart’s long winter will soon be mended by the coming of spring.

 

 

 

[i] W. Paul Jones, A Season in the Desert: Making Time Holy (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2000), 96.

[ii] Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand (1982, p. 45), cited in John Moses, The Desert: An Anthology for Lent (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 1997), 31.

[iii] John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 331.

“Flie with angels, fall with dust” –– Appreciating George Herbert

 

Angel guiding Joshua (detail, c. 1500), St. Mary’s, Fairford, Gloucestershire, UK (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

The seventeenth was almost the last century to succeed in looking within without falling in head first and being submerged––probably because its thinkers had as a governing conception not reality conceived as within the individual consciousness, but, rather, the possibility of inner harmony with reality.

–– Rosemund Tuve [i]

When we find words of the right sort to ask about the divine––words like ‘delight’, ‘enjoy’, ‘pleasure’, and persevere’––God can do nothing better than answer us in our own vocabulary.

–– Helen Vendler [ii]

In his lifetime, George Herbert was appreciated for his attractive personal qualities, his pastoral sense and sensibility, and his faithful Christian practice. But his extraordinary poetry, a primary domain for his soul work, remained hidden from the world until after his death in 1633. I have written about Herbert previously (Heart Work and Heaven Work), and return to him often for devotional reading as well as literary pleasure. In celebration of his feast day (February 27), let’s take another look.

Many of Herbert’s poems do not feel entirely accessible today. His seventeenth-century language and syntax require some translation, while his inventively constructed metaphors and images assume a biblical and theological literacy no longer widely possessed. “[T]his change in the sensibilities of his audience,” laments Rosemund Tuve, “damages some of Herbert’s poems appreciably. The waste for us is more unhappy by far than the unfairness to him.” [iii] I myself find the extensive footnotes and commentary in Helen Wilcox’s magnificent edition of The English Poems of George Herbert to be immensely helpful in letting the poems speak with proper force and meaning.

But the form of Herbert’s poems is not the only hindrance for the modern reader. In the prevailing atmosphere of our secular era, we don’t even breathe the same air as the metaphysical poet. As a recent biographer explains, “Divinity saturated and enclosed his world: the whole of it, from the slightest movements of his own inmost being to his external circumstances in time and the natural world . . . Divinity was the cause and the sum of how things are, without remainder.” [iv]

In contrast, even believers can find themselves acting and thinking like atheists these days, excepting the moments when they engage in conscious religious practice. We no longer live in a world––or a cultural consciousness––saturated with divinity. It is too easy to act as if God is neither necessary nor present. Herbert’s fervent I-Thou relationship with the transcendent can seem alien to the secular mind. Who’s he talking to anyway?

Compared to the modern flattening of human experience in a depthless and disenchanted world––no longer “charged with the grandeur of God” [v]––Herbert’s spiritual environment seems so alive with correspondences between visible things and deeper, invisible realities. The Mystery of the world is met in the humblest of circumstances. The burning bush flashes through the surface of the ordinary. Everyday phenomena are saturated with significance. The gate of heaven might be anywhere, admitting the attentive soul to a luminous eternity beyond the self.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy. [vi]

Herbert’s passionate engagement with transcendence––among us, within us, over-against us––was not theoretical or abstract, but intimate and experiential, employing the first-person form of lyric poetry to open a clearing where his inmost feelings could show themselves to both the speaker and his readers. In his striking play of words, images and sounds, a consort of meanings both public and private, we overhear Herbert’s prayers, and witness the argument of his soul. The brilliance of his poetic invention is never for its own sake. He seeks not to show off his skill, but to surrender his will.

Onely thy grace, which with these elements comes,
Knoweth the ready way,
And hath the privie key,
Op’ning the soul’s most subtle rooms. [vii]

Herbert’s humility was one of his most distinctive traits. He was hardly immune to ambition and acclaim, but renounced them for greater treasure. He would die, before his fortieth birthday, as a country priest far removed from the glitter of worldly success.

He seemed perpetually amazed that grace would take up residence in his “poore cabinet of bone.” [viii]

My God, what is a heart?
That thou shouldst it so eye, and wooe,
Powring upon it all thy art,
As if thou hadst nothing els to do? [ix]

He prayed to be worthy of the gift:

Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging than a rack or grave. [x]

And he never forgot to praise the Giver:

Blest be the Architect, whose art
Could build so strong in a weak heart. [xi]

Herbert’s life was not all sunshine and flowers. Five of his poems are called “Affliction.” The first of these begins happily enough:

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way:
My days were straw’d with flow’rs and happinesse;
There was no month but May.

But then come sorrow and woe, dissatisfaction and disappointment, illness and loss. After a long litany of troubles, the poem ends with a deceptively simple vow crammed with multiple meanings: surrender, self-doubt, anxiety, acceptance, and perhaps a hint of resistance to the demanding terms of the divine-human relationship.

Ah my deare God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not. [xii]

Even worse than personal suffering was the experience of divine absence. For a faithful person in a religious world, such absence was nothing like the “out of sight, out of mind” of our secular age. If God does not “exist” in cultural or personal awareness, then the lack of divine presence goes unnoticed and unfelt. But for anyone whose heart belongs to God, the times of divine absence are excruciating.

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse . . .
O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing. [xiii]

As the Psalms so often remind us, God is not an easy partner. Luther supposed that God often “hides his grace” to teach us not to grasp the divine “according to our own feelings and reactions.”[xiv] If faith always needs evidence, how can it be faith? Or as Emily Dickinson described her own wrestling with “that diviner thing,” it does not always respond to our advances, but rather “Flits––glimmers––proves––dissolves––/ Returns––suggests––“ [xv]

If it were otherwise, and Presence were always immediate, filling every place and every moment with plenitude, our journey would be over, and we would no longer be the “heart in pilgrimage.”[xvi] Herbert, like every saint, accepted God’s terms with faithful ambivalence. “I will complain, yet praise,” he said. “I will bewail, approve: / And all my sowre-sweet days / I will lament, and love.” [xvii]

And in the end, all shall be well, and all manner of thing be well: [xviii]

Whether I flie with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there:
Thy power and love, my love and trust
Make one place ev’ry where. [xix]

 

 

 

Related post: Heart Work and Heaven Work

 

[i] Rosemund Tuve, A Reading of George Herbert(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 194.

[ii] Helen Vendler, Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery(Princeton, 2005), q. in John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 336.

[iii] Tuve, 103.

[iv] Drury, 11.

[v] Gerard Manley Hopkns, “God’s Grandeur.”

[vi] “The Elixir.”

[vii] “The Holy Communion.”

[viii] “Ungratefulnesse.”

[ix] “Mattens.”

[x] “Christmas.”

[xi] “The Church-floore.”

[xii] “Affliction (I).”

[xiii] “Deniall.”

[xiv] Martin Luther, Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, q. in Richard Strier, Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert’s Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 219.

[xv] Emily Dickinson, “The Love a Life can show Below” (F285, 1862).

[xvi] “Prayer (I).”

[xvii] “Bitter-sweet.”

[xviii] I hope Herbert would appreciate the poetic conceit of combining fellow English artists the Beatles and Julian of Norwich in the same line!

[xix] “The Temper (I).”