Arthur Middleton on William Laud’s Devotions
Like Andrewes, Laud expresses his prayer in the language of the Prayer Book Collects and ancient liturgies that he personalizes for the purpose of his own prayer. The book is arranged for the whole week with prayers for different hours of the day. As well as the Prayer Book Collects, it has prayers from the early Christian Fathers, prayers for different occasions and for people of all classes. There is a spirit of penitence pervading it and every hour is punctuated by an expression of such prayer. He is a man for whom ultra-Protestantism was cruelly persecuting. His prayers display to us a conscience sensibly alive to the goodness of God and its own imperfection, a heart deeply penetrated by sense of sin, a broken and contrite spirit. Follow Laud from the controversies of his time to the retirement of the closet and you find him on his knees, pouring out his soul in prayer.
‘O Merciful God, Thou hast showed me much mercy, and done great things for me; and as I was returning, instead of thankfulness, I wandered out of my way from Thee, into a foul and a strange path. There Thou madest me see both my folly and my weakness: Lord, make me ever see them, be ever sorry… forgive me the folly, and strengthen me against the weakness for ever.’
‘O sins of mine, not yet sufficiently bewailed! O mercy of God, not yet sufficiently acknowledged! O penitence, more than ever necessary to me! O grace of God, to be implored humbly and meekly. I arise, O Father, and I come: with slow and faltering step, indeed, but I come and confess, I have sinned against heaven and before Thee, and am no more worthy to be called Thy son. Let me be, O Lord, what Thou wilt, so long as I am Thine. Wash me in Thy Son’s Blood, that I may become Thine. Grant, I pray Thee, that this affright and daily remembrance of this fire, may burn out the dross and remains of sin; that the better fire of love and devotion may inflame me, walking more cautiously, with love to Thy Name, and hatred of sin, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’
Such is the picture of Laud’s inner life, presented to us in his Devotions. It is a similar picture to what we find in other heroes of the Church. In conflict with the world, they are stern, uncompromising and unyielding, but in their closets they are humble, gentle, penitent, weary of the burden of their sins, clothed in sackcloth.
In his prayer there is a continual consciousness of his enemies as he prays against them and longs for deliverance from them. Like the psalmist who prays about ‘the ungodly who bend their bow, and make ready their arrows within the quiver, that they may privily shoot at them which are true of heart,’ so Laud’s devotions are peculiarly indicative of this state of mind. Some might say that this characteristic trait of these devotions almost makes them unfit for ordinary use in this individualism that so pervades them. He is obviously under pressure, engaged in a hard, unpromising struggle, surrounded by enemies and persons who wish him evil, with ‘the snare’ and ‘the pit’ open for him as he prays against them. Nevertheless, there is in this archbishop’s prayer a most perfect tranquil assurance that he is fighting against the enemies of God and a disposition of simple religious sincerity. In them we find the priest doing what he thinks is mere duty and work. His weariness and longings find expression in the prayer of St Augustine:
‘Long time, O Lord, have I struggled against heresies, and am almost wearied. Come, Lord Jesus, mightiest Warrior, Prince of the host of the Lord, Conqueror of the devil and the world: take arms and shield, and rise up and help me.’
‘Deal with me, O God, according to Thy name, for sweet is Thy mercy. O deliver me, for I am helpless and poor, and my heart is wounded within me.’
‘Mine eyes are ever looking unto Thee, O Lord; O pluck my feet out of the net.’
‘I deal with the thing that is lawful and right, O give me not over unto mine oppressors: Gracious Father, the life of man is a warfare upon earth; be present with me in the services of my calling. That which I cannot foresee, I beseech Thee prevent; that which I cannot withstand, I beseech Thee master; that which I do not fear, I beseech Thee unmask and frustrate. Especially, O Lord, bless and preserve me at this time from M. N., that I may glorify Thee for this deliverance also.’
Nevertheless, those who are beset by so many and grave dangers themselves may find in Laud’s devotions a kindred spirit who can lead them to pray through those things that do so easily hem them in. Similarly, as Laud knew that by nature he was irritable and easily provoked and admits this in his numerous prayers for bridling the tongue in the spirit of the psalmist, he may well provide people likewise afflicted with words of prayer:
‘Lord, keep my tongue from evil, and my lips that they speak no guile; that so I may eschew evil and do good, seek peace and ensue it.’
‘O Lord, give me the mouth of the righteous, that it may be exercised in wisdom, and that my tongue may be talking of thy judgements.’
The place of the Eucharist was central to his inner life, where in the conviction of the Real Presence of Christ he rejoiced in the company of heaven. Here at the altar he found his ‘strength and stay’ after devout preparation, to sustain him in his struggles. His Eucharistic devotions can be helpful today:
‘O Lord, into a clean, charitable, and thankful heart, give me grace to receive the blessed Body and Blood of Thy Son my most blessed Saviour; that it may more perfectly cleanse me from all dregs of sin; that being made clean, it may nourish me in faith, hope, charity, and obedience, with all other fruits of spiritual life and growth in Thee; that in all the future course of my life, I may show myself such an ingrafted member into the Body of Thy Son, that I may never be drawn to do anything that may dishonour His Name. Grant this, O Lord, I beseech Thee, even for His merit and mercy’s sake. Amen.’
‘O Lord God, hear my prayers! I come to Thee in a steadfast faith; yet for the clearness of my faith, Lord, enlighten it; for the strength of my faith, Lord, increase it. And behold, I quarrel not with the words of Thy Son, my saviour’s blessed institution. I know His words are no gross, unnatural conceit, but they are spirit and life, and supernatural. While the world disputes, I believe. He hath promised me, if I come worthily, that I shall receive His most precious Body and Blood, with all the benefits of His Passion. If I can receive and retain it, Lord, make me able, make me worthy, I know I can no more die eternally, than that Body and Blood can die, and be shed again.’
And then after the receiving of either kind:
‘Lord, I have received this Sacrament of the Body and Blood of my dear Saviour. His mercy hath given it, and my faith received it into my soul. I humbly beseech Thee speak mercy and peace unto my conscience, and enrich me with all those graces which come from that precious Body and Blood, even till I am possessed of eternal life in Christ.’
There are prayers of penitence, for times of affliction, war, thanksgiving and praise, anniversaries, preparation for death and so on. We can learn from this archbishop how to pray through all the changing scenes of life, in trouble and in joy and let him put words into your mouth.