“Gare St. Lazare” (Claude Monet 1840-1926)
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.
(George Herbert (1593-1633)
Prayer. Something we will never fully understand. Something that eludes all of our attempts at explanations. Yet, despite our inability to understand the mystery of prayer, we pray. Sometimes in desperation. Sometimes in hope. Sometimes in awe and gratitude. Sometimes in simple trust.
George Herbert, 17th century poet and pastor, was a man who prayed. A lot. Prayed especially to listen for and to experience God’s presence in his life. In his short poem “Prayer,” Herbert offers us a sumptuous feast of images to describe the mystical experience of his prayers: “church’s banquet,” “the soul in paraphrase,” “God’s breath in man returning to his birth,” “sinner’s tow’r,” “bird of Paradise,” “land of spices,” to note just a few.
So rich these images. Quite beyond the reach of most of us. Herbert, a one-time member of Parliament, later a pastor in a small rural setting, clearly experienced God in profound ways during his times of meditative prayer. He loved the God to whom he prayed, and he loved his “milky way,” his “church-bells beyond the stars” times of prayerful communion with his God.
But prayer for Herbert was not confined to the mystical and the meditative. Two powerful images in his poem stand out as quite different from the “softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss” of his more contemplative experience. “Engine against th’Almighty.” “Reversed thunder.” These two images speak of prayer that pleads with God on behalf of the needs of others or asks God to help with personal needs. Herbert clearly believes that our prayers do somehow touch God, and he “images” petitionary prayer as very powerful. No “softness and peace” here. These prayers look more like the steam engine in Monet’s “Gare St. Lazare,” as it thunders into the station spewing forth billows and billows of steam.
As poet and as wise pastor, Herbert doesn’t try to explain how our prayers might influence God. Nor does he offer a sure-fire formula for “how to pray to get what you want.” He makes no promises that we will receive just what we pray for. He simply describes the power of intercessory prayer. “Engine against th’Almighty.” “Reversed thunder.”
Through his own personal prayer experience and through the experiences of his parishioners, I’m sure Herbert had known times when his intercessory prayers did seem to bring about the very change for which he asked, in his life or in the lives of others. But I’m sure he also knew times when his intercessory prayers did not result in the changes for which he asked, but, instead, brought about changes in his attitude and understanding of that for which he prayed. He would have remembered that this was certainly the experience of Jesus in Gethsemane. Jesus’ prayer was, I believe, an engine thundering against the Almighty. A plea. A cry of desperation as Jesus’ sweat became drops of blood. “Let this cup pass from me!” But the cup did not pass. Jesus walked through the agony of desertion by his followers and then felt utterly forsaken as he hung on that Roman cross bearing the weight of the sins of the world. Yet, somehow, through his thunderous prayer, Jesus was given the strength to say “if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”
“Engine against th’Almighty.” “Reversed thunder.” Vivid descriptions of intercessory pray. I see these images also as an expression of some of the anger, frustration, weariness, and despair we sometimes feel towards God. I hear in these little phrases an encouragement not to run from our anger at God, but rather to let it roar as a powerful engine, trusting that God will never turn away from us, but will always listen carefully to us, accepting the thunder of all our questions, doubts, despair, anger, and frustration.
“Church-bells beyond the stars heard.” “Land of spices.” “Reversed thunder.” “Exalted manna.” Such a banquet for our souls at prayer. Exotic dishes to help us taste some of the richness of the gift of contemplative prayer. To help us experience more of the power of petitionary prayer in a renewed awareness that, in the end, come what may, we pray to a God who is a God of love and resurrection. To give us courage to be completely honest before God in our prayers—to let the thunder of our questions, doubts, and anger roll.
Deep mystery this thing called “prayer.” Something truly beyond our grasp. Herbert concludes his poem with two simple words, “something understood.” Not “everything” understood. Merely “something.” Just enough to keep us at it. Just enough to keep us reaching for those “church-bells beyond the stars heard.”