George Herbert on Prayer (22)
My soul thirst for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? Psalm 42.2
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
George Herbert certainly had a rich imagination when it came to thinking about prayer – unlike, doubtless, most of us.
Prayer just isn’t the kind of priority for most believers that we sense it was for George Herbert. Most people struggle with prayer, with making the time for it, praying meaningfully and sincerely, knowing what to pray and whether or not their prayers are as they should be. Many Christians regard prayer as a kind of garnish to their lives – they can take or leave it, although it looks kind of nice there on the plate. They want to include it among the things in their spiritual diet; they’re just not sure whether or how to eat it.
It’s not that we don’t think prayer is important. It’s more that we don’t really understand just how important it is, or how integral prayer is to our walk with the Lord and to our knowing full and abundant life in Him. Herbert’s metaphors can help us to engage in prayer with a totally different view of this most defining Christian discipline.
Prayer, as George Herbert understood it, is to the soul as the blood in our veins is to our bodies. The presence of prayer, saturating all the components of our soul, indicates that we are alive and well. Like blood, prayer brings renewal to our souls. It reshapes the way we think, fine tunes and refocuses our affections, and solidifies right values and commitments. Heart, mind, and conscience (will) are all daily renewed through the work of prayer, as we engage with God and He responds to us with spiritual insight, affections, values, grace, and power.
At the same time, prayer, like the blood, carries away any impurities in our souls. Prayer is the medium through which we seek cleansing of our thoughts, affections, and priorities. It is the “scape goat” by which we send our transgressions away, laying them on Jesus and humbly receiving the forgiveness and renewing He provides.
Prayer is also the soul’s first response to trial or tribulation. A body bleeds when it is cut. This allows the blood to begin doing its work of protecting the wound by clotting over it at the same time it carries away any infection and brings in renewing power. So prayer is the soul’s response to trial. When faced with temptation, hardship, loss, or other test of our faith, prayer provides a covering for the soul by sheltering it in the presence of God. In prayer, as we rejoice and give thanks in all things, any sinful responses are borne away and a “drip line” is established to the infinite Fountain of grace, by which renewal begins even in the midst of our pain.
We take for granted the blood that keeps our bodies alive and healthy, because we don’t see it (most of the time) and we probably don’t understand all it does and just how vital it is. The same is true, for many of us, with prayer. However, we can do something about the fact that we don’t see as much prayer in our lives as we should. We can make more time to pray. We can engage in prayer using the Lord’s own words to guide us, especially when we pray the psalms. And we can linger in prayer until the Lord transfuses His grace throughout our souls through this vital, renewing, cleansing, and healing discipline.
Next step: Talk with a Christian friend about the idea of prayer as the “soul’s blood.” How might you help one another to become stronger and more consistent in this discipline?
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.