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Prayer, by George Herbert

George Herbert Marker in Bemerton Church

Philip Harvey

Written by request for the students at St Peter’s Eastern Hill Melbourne studying for their Trinity College Certificate in Theology & Ministry, February-April 2011, under the direction of Bishop Graeme Rutherford.

George Herbert (1593-1633) had the poetic enthusiasm to collect and make up sayings. In this poem he has put together something like two dozen sayings that serve as definitions of prayer. He has arranged them into a rhyming poem (reproduced at the end of this commentary), presumably so they can be remembered and recited. It is a way of understanding prayer as well as being praise for the gift of prayer. All of these sayings are open to more than one interpretation and we will never be exhaustive.

Prayer the Churches banquet
The church lives on prayer, indeed prayer gives life to the church. Herbert is saying that this is not just some small meal to keep us going, it is the yum cha of our very existence and without it there is no church.

Angels age
It is my understanding that angels are outside time, that is not bound by the human construction called time. Prayer is when we put away ‘when’, are in that place where we are with God. It can be five minutes, but time itself could be going on for a well-spent age. Angel’s age is Now. At it’s best we are with all creation in recognition of God’s great and good presence, represented in the Mass by Sanctus, everything that is of God is Holy.

Gods breath in man returning to his birth
Breathing is the basis of prayer. In all the main religions breath control is a means to increased contemplation. This saying though is talking too about the breath God put into Adam (Genesis), prayer places us in the state of closeness to God; we are with God and not separated, while at prayer. I think it is meant to remind us as well of the Holy Spirit, whose breath renews us through prayer.

The soul in paraphrase
Paraphrase is another way of saying the same thing using different words, often in an abbreviated form. So that prayer, like poetry, is the means we have with our limited vocabulary of saying the unlimited and inexpressible states of our soul. This saying is as much about the inability of any language ever to express completely our inner being as it is about prayer itself as brief statements or alternate expressions of our inner being.

Heart in pilgrimage
Prayer is the action of the emotion and the intellect together. When we go on pilgrimage we take our physical selves across the hard world to a special destination, the purpose of which is to find greater understanding of our life in the world, and our spiritual life. It is a conscious action. Prayer is a conscious action with a directed purpose. The heart, and everything that goes on in the heart, is being given consideration in prayer. Physically we do not have to be travelling anywhere to be engaged in this form of pilgrimage.

The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth
The precise meaning of ‘Christian’ is like the precise meaning of ‘Buddhist’, it is that which comes directly from the teaching of the original master. Jesus Christ explains that people should pray directly to the Father; that is Christian. A plummet is the word Herbert would have used for plumb-rule or plumb-bob, i.e. a lead ball attached to a line for determining the vertical. The same was used to make a sounding for the depth of water. So prayer is the most direct connection between us and God. Prayer also shows the distance there is at any one time between us and God. Prayer is a sounding. Furthermore, Herbert would have known plummet to mean “a criterion of rectitude or truth,” (OED) which is the purpose of the plumb-bob in making a sounding. So prayer is the putting forward of the truth that goes on between God and the person at prayer. Prayer is about getting at the truth, but the truth as God would have us understand it, not as we would want it to be. In prayer you cannot lie or dissemble before God, all will be known in its exact way, however well or poorly it is expressed. A person who talks to God by use of a sonnet is a very clever person indeed, but it is not the form that counts but the content and the intention. It is easy to see where the modern verb ‘plummet’ comes from: it is a description of a plumb-bob dropping rapidly to fathom, quite literally fathom, the depths.

Engine against the Almighty
Herbert would have known that ‘engine’ means ingenuity, so there is at least the sense that prayer is a form of cunning or cleverness used to get to God. An ‘engine’ is a device or mechanism and Herbert uses the word in this sense as a physical means of getting at God, possibly as a battering ram or other machine for breaking through. The sense that he is talking about a war engine comes from the fact that he is up against the Almighty. Prayer is the big secret weapon that he brings out for the main offensive.

Sinners tower
All humans commit sins, one way or another. A tower in Herbert’s time was both a refuge and a protection, so prayer is a refuge available to everyone and a protection from further trouble, including sin. Without this tower we are simply lost in our fallen state.

Reversed thunder
One view I have found of this image is that while thunder comes down to earth from above, so our strong words go up above in the opposite direction, striking at heaven.

Christ-side-piercing spear
Just as the spear wounds Christ on the Cross, so our prayer directed at Christ enters inside him. This is not to be read as prayer being cruel. This is a medieval language of personal connection with Christ in the witness of his Passion. In meditation upon the Passion it is worth remembering that the piercing of Christ’s side brings relief from the obscene agony. As we are taught, it releases the blood that is poured forth for our sins and is through this action and for this reason for our good.

The six-days world transposing in an hour
Perhaps nothing quite challenges us as the self-awareness that everything in the created world is millions years old. We ourselves are beings that are millions of years old, who can feel it in every bone and sinew. Touch wood with your knuckle sometime and think about it. Herbert is saying that prayer is a behaviour of consciousness, of everything that we are and have become over millennia. Prayer transforms our very being in a moment by the simple process of doing it. Herbert’s knowledge of evolution is not ours, but he in his cosmology is telling us that all of God’s creation is made new in us by the action of prayer. After we pray we see all the world around us more alive, more clearly, more meaningfully.

A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear
Prayer is not art, it is not a poem, is not made to impress others. Even if the prayers we make and use have a form and structure, the purpose is not to please others but only to meet the one to whom the prayer is directed. So it is a ‘kind of tune’, not music but something that can sound like music. At the same time, prayer is that which we make ourselves out of our own skills store. However it happens and whatever it sounds like, it is our personal voice, our way of making meaning. It may be rich or poor in the world’s eyes and by the world’s critical faculties, but all of that is some kind of joke when the prayer is said from the heart to God. Anyone may make this ‘kind of tune’ and everyone does, sometimes. ‘A kind of tune’ is the most modest start in music, yet Herbert is saying that it strikes fear into the listener. Fear in the sense of awe and respect. Moreover, those who encounter someone making such prayer are stopped in awe. A person at prayer has the effect of stopping others from interrupting them; we know to leave someone alone when they are at prayer.

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss
This is a statement both of the tranquillity and equilibrium brought about by prayer, and of the potential for ecstasy that prayer can take you into. Prayer brings all of this happiness, this delight the more we pray. If the line sounds hippy drippy to a modern ear, consider why the opposite of each of these words is also the opposite of what prayer informs and presents. This line is unique in the poem in being a straight description of states of being brought about when at prayer. It is though, I think, the harbinger of the only other straight non-conceit in the poem, the final two words.

Exalted Manna
Nowadays we may describe a performance as being done in an ‘exalted manner’, but this is not the same. The manna found in the wilderness is the scungiest products of nature (honeydew or herb seeds or insect shells) scraped up by the Israelites when they had nothing left to eat. Though barely deserving of the word ‘food’, manna fed the hungry, raised their hopes and strengthened their faith. If this is as much as will feed the people, then what are we to make of the bread offered at the Eucharist? It is truly exalted manna. Clearly though in Exodus, manna comes from above and is a freely given sustenance for those at their wit’s end. If God can give even these scant things as signs of his benevolence, what are we to say of prayer, which is freely given and helps lead us into God’s will? It is the poorest thing, yet when lifted up on high to God it is the most exalted thing any of us can do.

Gladness of the best
Genesis talks of God seeing that it was very good. This same recognition of the creation as good and greater than anything we can say or do against it, is in the meaning of this saying. We are asked when thinking of someone, especially someone we don’t want to know about or hate or find irritating or cannot approve, that we find at least one redeeming quality, their best. Prayer is making us move toward this perception of God in others.

Heaven in ordinary
At its simplest, this means that prayer happens in the dailiness of life. The extraordinary is in the ordinary, made manifest most wondrously in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. I have read that an ‘ordinary’ was a heavy windcheater-type garment of the period, so that prayer is what we wear every day. This meaning connects with the next conceit.

Man well dressed
It would test an historian to identify when Christians first thought it fit to wear their best clothes when going to worship. The Byzantines have a lot to answer for and this may be one of their achievements, when the clothing at Divine Service in Constantinople had to be even superior to that worn in the Imperial Court, because in Church we are now entering the Antechamber of Heaven. Herbert though means that before God we must give of our best and make the effort to be worthy in such a presence. Prayer is about man and woman presenting themselves acceptably before God. Simultaneously, the saying seems to mean that prayer itself is about wellness, so that the more we pray the more well we become and the better we appear in our outward physical appearance to those around us. Those living in the spirit are ‘dressed’ in appearance with wellness, with the life of God that is in them. Also, man well dressed is man reconciled with God and neighbour.

The Milky Way
Like some of the other images in this poem, this one certainly is saying that prayer fills us ultimately with a state of wonder. Every one of our senses is beneficially increased by the practice of prayer. Indeed, although we are called to attention through prayer, all of the senses are at work. It is the engagement of complete being.

The Bird of Paradise
In Persian Sufi tradition the Bird of Paradise never comes to rest on the earth, but flies unseen high above earthly existence. One Sufi Master explains that the true meaning of the Bird of Paradise is that “when a person’s thoughts so evolve that they break all limitation, then he becomes as a king. It is the limitation of language that it can only describe the Most High as something like a king.” Prayer can break all limitations, it can say what needs to be said with or without language. In some legends this bird is the phoenix, that is a creature that consumes itself in fire and rises anew from the ashes. The phoenix is used as an emblem of the resurrection. Prayer is a phoenix. And, like the Milky Way, it can be seen that the Bird of Paradise is a being, being itself, that simply fills us with wonder. Herbert could perhaps, like some other Englishmen of his time, have heard of the island identified by the Spaniards as New Guinea, but would not have known about the island’s fabulous, if gravitationally conditioned, birds.

Church-bells beyond the stars heard
For Herbert the church-bell is the manmade object that calls people to prayer and signals the times and seasons. Church-bells are designed to reach people and send messages from afar. He knows that they cannot be heard in space beyond the earth. But prayer is directed to God, who is both here and beyond space and time. Critical in this saying is ‘heard’ because it is saying that God hears our prayer. Herbert is a contemporary of Galileo, so for him our world whether geocentric or heliocentric still is surrounded by stars. Stars are the outer realm of the universe beyond the Earth, the Moon, and the Sun. Only God is beyond the stars, something that is still sound theology whatever your modern view of the cosmos. So a prayer, even or especially in silence, is a church-bell that can be heard wherever God is.

The soul’s blood
Just as the blood brings warmth and life to the body and the body cannot live without blood, so prayer is the essential element for the good and the survival of the soul or, as we might say as well, our spiritual life.

The land of spices

Today various countries are called the Land of Spices, most commonly India. Herbert is certainly thinking of somewhere other, somewhere that is good to be, somewhere where the products of the land are special and marvellous in their own right. These are all attributes of prayer. Prayer is that place where we go when we pray. For Herbert though, spices are not simply wonderful flavours but act as preservatives. In his time, pre-fridge, the trade in spices was already huge because spices kept food in a prime state for weeks. So the land of spices offers continued health; things don’t go off.

Something understood

This line is itself extraordinary in its ordinariness. Every other line in the poem is an analogy, whether simple, clever or totally far-out. Then, as though to turn the whole literary edifice around, the poet finishes with words that are not only not a conceit, they are almost bland or obvious in their plainness: ‘something understood’. It is the sort of thing we might say when completely at a loss as to how to explain prayer. It is something we might be almost too embarrassed to say, for everyone seems to spend their days the whole time reaching understandings of one kind or another, never mind whether they are praying. But we have to think again. Every time we experience understanding it is a revelation. We feel better, we feel relieved, we feel improved, we feel as though something has happened that has caused us to grow. Every other phrase in the poem requires an act of thought by us the readers; we must process the saying and come up with explanations in order to get at something understood. But at the end the poet simple puts it, prayer is something understood. The phrase itself is an affirmation of all the two dozen sayings that have come before. Having given us a multiplicity of definitions that we may or may not understand wholly or in part, Herbert then completes the list by saying that prayer is in fact as simple as coming to an understanding, an understanding that comes about through praying. There isn’t even a word it, it is ‘something’. He holds this out to us as the result of prayer, when we pray we will understand and we will understand in a new way.


George Herbert

Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods 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’ Almightie, sinners towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-daies world transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The Milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,

The land of spices; something understood.


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