Arthur Middleton in William Laud’s (1573–1645) closet
William Laud’s Private Devotions present the priest in his closet in penitence before the Cross, revealing inner thoughts and feelings in which his mind continually moved, and highlighting the omissions of biographies. It reveals a consistent aim throughout, ambitious not for himself, but for the Church. First impressions seem hard and insensitive, but here is a strength and spiritual power in which is found the seed of the Church of Christ, making the Church of England Laud’s truest memorial because he built for the future.
Laud kept the public prayers and his private devotions in his closet, in rest, refreshment, and freedom from intrusion. He renewed his strength and patience, living by rule and obeying the English Church and her rules. His deep piety found the language of the Bible, the ancient collects, the English service-books, and the intimate thoughts of private prayer, the very breath of life, preserving him in a corrupt Court. Despite his sins and mistakes, he lived simply, with fixed times of work and devotion, generosity to the poor, and diligently keeping the Lenten fast even at Lambeth.
The Devotions (1667) influenced the public mind to regard Laud as a great champion of the faith. It had brought him persecution from ultra-Protestantism in Church, Court and Parliament that opposed what the Book of Common Prayer and the Church of England stood for. His prayer for the Church, used today, becomes poignant. ‘Most gracious Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth; in all truth with all peace…’ From Daily Offices, it was inevitable that the language of psalmody would come to express his personal prayer: ‘deliver my soul from them that hate me without a cause.’ Wearied with strife, he found refuge in communion with God: ‘O Lord, I beseech Thee forgive mine enemies all their sins against Thee, and give me that measure of Thy grace, that for their hatred I may love them.’
The Devotions open with a Paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer to be said daily, and a daily antiphon prefacing the daily prayers. After the invocation, comes the familiar collect, ‘Prevent me…in all my doings with thy most gracious favour…’ A paraphrase of the Prayer Book Confession and Absolution follows, intercessions for the Royal Family, kindred and friends, servants, sick, all sorts, a petition for a ‘penitent and patient spirit’ and to ‘make my service acceptable.’ Prayers for each day follow.
Sunday remembers the Resurrection, Thursday the Ascension and Friday the Cross. He also prays on Thursdays: ‘deliver me from them whose words are softer than butter, when they have war in their heart.’ expressing the pain of persecution for maintaining ‘the continuity of the English Church.’ Again, ‘preserve me from the cruel man, which imagines mischief in his heart and stirs up strife all the day long.’ In a broken and contrite spirit in the controversies of his time we find him on his knees, in prayer.
Thus Laud’s inner life is seen when we linger in his closet. Like other heroes of the Church in conflict with the world, they are stern and unyielding. In their closets, they are humble, gentle and penitent. So Augustine’s prayer becomes Laud’s: ‘Long time, O Lord, have I struggled against heresies, and am almost wearied. Come, Lord Jesus.’