George Herbert on Prayer (20)
…pray without ceasing… 2 Thessalonians 5.17
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
The bird of paradise is a lovely creature found in the forests and jungles of New Guinea and elsewhere. Some 45 species exist, and they are characterized (among males) by excessive plumage and brilliant, often iridescent colors. They are, as you might imagine, highly regarded by those native to where they flourish. A bird of paradise soars in vivid gold against the red background of the upper part of the flag of New Guinea.
England in George Herbert’s day (early 17th century, we recall) would have been only vaguely aware of this beautiful bird, but the people there would have heard of its beauty and charms. Undoubtedly, seamen and explorers brought back to England tales and lore about the unique qualities of this bird, and some of these appealed to Herbert as he struggled to find words to describe what prayer meant to him.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, three associations, related to the bird of paradise and beyond the bird’s radiant appearance, might have been available to Herbert. One is suggested in a citation from 1606. J. Carpenter, in his Solomon’s Solace, observed, “The Bird of Paradise, which being taken in a snare is neuer (never) quiet.” When confronted with a situation or circumstance it cannot overcome, the bird of paradise was thought to cry and call continually, as if for help that could only come to it from without.
Two other accounts are from beyond Herbert’s lifetime (he died in 1633), yet they testify to what may have been ideas with which the poet would have been familiar. A citation from a 1638 publication, for example, (Wilkins, New World) reported that “The Birds of Paradise…reside Constantly in the Air.” And a reference from 1649 (Crashaw, Carmen Deo Nostro) observed, “With heuenly (heavenly) riches: which had wholy call’d His thoughtes from earth, to liue (live) aboue (above) in’th aire, A very bird of paradise.” In that day also, the OED reports, English astronomers regarded a southern constellation of stars as the “bird of paradise.” (though I could not find a reference to it in my Space Atlas).
What does all this have to do with prayer? Did Herbert – and his contemporaries – see in the bird of paradise a creature that is beautiful above all birds, cries incessantly, and always remains in flight – so much so that it was identified with the stars in the heavens? And did he consider that prayer should be something like that as well, a thing much to be desired and to be engaged in without ceasing? And, if so, did he want us to understand that prayer is a vehicle by which we might soar above the earth, and all our mundane circumstances and trials, crying out always to God, until we find ourselves firmly fixed within the heavens of glory?
It all seems quite likely to me. George Herbert did not want us to wilt under Paul’s command that we should take up the discipline of prayer “without ceasing.” He did not want us to regard this as an onerous burden, one impossible of ever achieving. Rather, he wanted us to delight in prayer, to hope in it, and to discover ways, even when snared by the things of this world, to offer up the cries of our hearts to the Lord in prayer, with the hope and expectation that our prayers might lodge with Him in heaven, and bring to us the peace that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:6, 7).
Prayer is, indeed, the bird of paradise – the wings of faith that carry us, by the plumage of Jesus Christ, into the very throne room of our heavenly Father. Who could fail to desire such a privilege at every moment, in every situation, without ceasing?
Next steps: Meditate on Paul’s command in 1 Thessalonians 5.17. How does your own practice of prayer compare with this “bird of paradise”? Suggest some ways you might begin to practice prayer more like this.
T. M.’s books on prayer include God’s Prayer Program, a guide to learning how to pray the psalms; The Psalms for Prayer, in which all the psalms are set up to guide you in how to pray them; and If Men Will Pray, a serious attempt to call men of faith to greater diligence in prayer. Follow the links provided here to purchase these from our online store.