Arthur Middleton considers manuals of devotion


Compiling one’s own book of devotion for private use has long been a practice in Anglican devotion and there are a number of classical examples of such purely devotional manuals which reflect not only sound doctrine, but also the use of the Church’s liturgical prayer as the medium of personal prayer. The most well-known of these are The Private Prayers of Lancelot Andrewes, William Laud’s Private Devotions, Thomas Wilson’s Privata Sacra, and Bishop Cosin’s A Collection of Private Devotions, to name four.

The most famous of these manuals belonged to Lancelot Andrewes. There is nowhere, perhaps, a more searching and invigorating devotional book than this of Lancelot Andrewes. Prepared for his personal use alone and not for other eyes, it unveils most intimately the heart of a saint as he saw himself in the presence of God. The abasement of his penitence is equalled only by his adoration and the gratitude called forth by the assurance of his redemption and forgiveness. Many thousands since its first publication three hundred years ago have found in it a treasured guide and instructor in spiritual understanding.

In the chancel of Southwark Cathedral lies the tomb of Lancelot Andrewes. A prayer desk beside the tomb has on it a copy of those private devotions, which in the last years of failing health were never far from him. So we must imagine him on his knees, within reach of three Bibles (in Hebrew and Greek and Latin) a few other books on the shelf, and on bits of paper jotting down his thoughts and penitence, and gratitude, and praise, hardly liking to add words of his own, as inadequate; always taking a text from somewhere, and then weaving it into his own pattern, so that nothing separate in the book is original, and yet the whole is fresh and original—a mosaic of beauty.

The original in Hebrew, Greek and Latin was translated and published in 1648 by Richard Drake, a pupil and disciple and a friend of one of his secretaries. It was not until 1673 that a proper edition was published to become a treasured possession of our heritage of literature and devotion. Before he became a Roman Catholic in 1845, John Henry Newman translated Andrewes’ Private Prayers in 1840 and kept a copy of them on his prayer desk throughout the rest of his life, a translation still available in second-hand book shops. This means that no edition today is how Andrewes left it but is a conjectured construction by contemporary editors.

The curious thing is that neither the unoriginality of the separate texts which Andrewes wrote down, nor the gap between the texts which he wrote and the various modern arrangements of the texts, puts the slightest bar between the reader of Andrewes’ text and Andrewes’ own mind. Everyone who uses the mosaic has an instant sense of rapport across the centuries, with a mind that is penitential, grateful, gentle, humane, compassionate—a lover of God and his grace. This sense of rapport is so remarkable that it makes the historian wonder about historical sources. To penetrate the personality of a figure of the past is one of the most difficult feats which historians are sometimes driven to attempt. Modern psycho-history has used the methods of psychology to attempt it, but to little effect and, on occasion, damaging effect. The texts of Andrewes make one wonder whether a religious figure of the past may be best known by looking at his prayers. You do not know Andrewes at all by reading the translation of Genesis in the Authorised Version. You know him a little, but so little as to be misleading, if you read the Latin of Tortura Torti. A few letters survive, but not enough to give you the personality of the author. If you read the sermons you begin to know something of the preacher’s mind—humour, pity, anxiety for society and its condition, care for the state, love of a saviour—but even in the sermon, through a glass darkly. It is in the Preces Privatae that you feel there to be a meeting of minds, or perhaps of souls, I do not know.

The manual expresses the true tone and character which the English church aims at forming in her children: largeness of sympathy, self-restraint, soberness, fervour, the spirit of ‘continuous but not unhopeful penitence.’ It brings us into the most intimate contact with one who, besides being a great scholar and a great bishop, a favoured courtier and a highly placed dignitary, was one who ‘wholly spent himself and his studies in prayer and the praise of God, compassion and works of charity.’ Here he offers himself, his soul and body, a contrite and a broken heart, and a thankful and grateful heart to his creator.