Christopher Trundle on the work of Eric Milner-White and the influences that inspired him
Any attempt to describe heaven inevitably falls short – and quite rightly so – but one which
certainly meets with a great degree of admiration is the well-loved prayer by Eric Milner-White:
‘Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes but one equal possession, no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity, in the habitations of thy majesty and thy glory, world without end. Amen.’
Faithful to Donne’s words
For many it is difficult to read these words without thinking of the beautiful choral setting by William Harris. This moving text itself is not, of course, originally Milner-White’s, but is based on words from a sermon of John Donne [A Sermon Preached at White-hall, February 29, 1627 (or possibly 1628)]. Speaking of the righteous, Donne tells his hearers that ‘They shall awake as Jacob did, and say as Jacob said, Surely the Lord is in this place, and this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven, And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell…’ Milner-White is fairly faithful to Donne’s words, omitting only a couple of phrases, one of which speaks particularly powerfully to Anglican Catholics of all persuasions in the present moment: ‘no foes nor friends, but an equall communion and Identity’.
Donne’s life story is an interesting one; he was born a Roman Catholic in 1572, but had submitted to the Church of England by 1598, and was ordained (somewhat reluctantly) in 1615 at the express urging of King James I. He is known now, as he was then, as a renowned preacher and poet, and was a favourite of King James and of King Charles I.
In this prayer, Donne’s expression of the inexpressible invites the hearer to consider the reality of the heavenly realm in a number of specific ways without removing the element of mystery. In contrast to so many prayers today (even, dare I say it, Collects) this text embodies not only a noble hope, but also an extraordinarily rich means of meditating upon our ultimate calling.
Love for tradition
Milner-White is rightly fêted for his ability to take the best of the Christian tradition and re-use it to great effect. His love for the tradition is perhaps best found in that indispensable prayer book, My God My Glory (1954). Here scriptural and patristic references abound, and he writes that his influences encompass sources from early liturgy, architecture and Augustine to Traherne, Vaughan and Caussade; Donne, he writes, ‘has an unparalleled power of kindling the vision which turns into prayer’.
While he admits that the words of Donne are in the back of his mind in the composition of many of the prayers in My God My Glory, he does not credit him with this one; it is, however, a fitting counterpart to the text with which we began.
O my God,
bring me, even now, to the mansions
which thy Son prepareth for them that love thee.
Every day make me to dwell in the eternal,
and live unto thee.
Let me walk in that heavenly city
of which the Lamb is the light:
let me serve as in the courts
where the Lamb reigneth:
let me follow the Lamb
whithersoever he goeth:
and fear not, cease not, to battle for right
after the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Let my conversation be in heaven with thy blesséd and beloved,
the whole company of the redeemed;
and with hierarchies of angels
praising, worshipping, and adoring him
that sitteth upon the throne for ever and ever.