For us all, and particularly clergy, Martin Draper finds encouragement in a famous Wesley hymn as Petertide approaches
When those of us who are ordained priest ask ourselves, ‘how much personal preparation do I make for Sunday?’ the answer is probably something like, ‘not as much as I used to’.
Sunday is the day on which our public ministry is clearly manifest to the greatest number of people; when what we do most clearly expresses what we are. Yet, the ‘business’ of Sunday morning sometimes works against prayerful preparation. Some clergy have to prepare their own young children for Sunday in ways which are more practical than spiritual. Others serve more than one church and have to rush from one celebration to another, arriving just before another mass is due to begin. And sacristies are not as quiet and recollected as they once were: a parishioner knocks on the door with something which must be included in the notices; or a Churchwarden tells us that someone has asked to see a priest immediately and there is no alternative but to go ourselves and explain to the person that we shall be happy to give them some time after mass is ended.
Saturdays too are full of preparation of one sort or another: the sermon is perhaps not finished. Then there’s the weekly bulletin to print out, and so on.
What about spending a moment just before going to sleep on Saturday evening? The words of Charles Wesley’s (1707-88) hymn, O thou who camest from above, form an excellent act of priestly rededication and are so familiar that they are easily learned by heart. We can pray them for ourselves and, if you are a list-oriented intercessor, for other priests we wish to remember by name.
O THOU who camest from above,
The true celestial fire to impart,
Kindle a flame of sacred love
On the mean altar of my heart.
2 There let it for thy glory burn
With inextinguishable blaze,
And trembling to its source return
In humble prayer and fervent praise.
3 Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
To work and speak and think for thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up thy gift in me.
4 Ready for all thy perfect will,
My acts of faith and love repeat,
Till death thy endless mercies seal,
And make my sacrifice complete.
The hymn is addressed to Christ, ‘who came from above’: our great High Priest, who has called us and gifted us with a share in his own priestly ministry. With its vocabulary of ‘altar’ and ‘sacred’ and ‘sacrifice’, priestly vocation infuses the whole text and is wholly appropriate for pre-ordination retreats.
It begins by asking Christ for the celestial fire which is the Holy Spirit, which he himself promised and has already ‘imparted’ to his whole Church. Yes, our hearts are often ‘mean’ as altars, but he can kindle a flame in and on them, because the ‘fire’ is that of the ‘sacred love’ which unites the Holy Trinity.
With the offering of the Church’s sacrifice of praise on the morrow foremost in our minds – for the ‘fire’ shall never to go out – we pray that what we do will be for Christ’s glory. We ‘tremble’ to do it, for ‘we are not worthy to offer any sacrifice, yet….’ we can offer the sacrifice of Christ himself. We offer it in humility, but also with the fervour which, though sometimes lacking personally (hence our prayer now), is always that of the whole Church Catholic.
But our heart’s desire, if not always that of our will, is not restricted to the next morning’s celebration of the eucharist. Its desire is to do everything for Christ throughout the day and week ahead. The fire of sacred love which – in the sacraments for example – is the life-blood of the Church has to be guarded as the treasure it is, and who else is there to guard it? So we need to ask that Christ’s gift of his priesthood will be ‘stirred up’ in us again and again.
Then we shall be ready – as the hymn prays – for all his ‘perfect will’, whatever that may be. We commit ourselves to ‘repeating’ those acts of faith and love, of which the Daily Offices, to which we are bound by our ordination, spring to mind. Their words are certainly much repeated! We can easily see them as the acts of faith they are and we can also see them, however ‘mechanical’ they sometimes seem, as acts of love for Christ and his Church.
Like many traditional hymns, its end reminds us of our own. Death is seen, beautifully, as sealing ‘Christ’s endless mercies’. It also completes our priestly service on earth, when Christ’s full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice shall be made completely and finally our own.
Of course, Wesley’s text is not only for priests, but his words – it may be a particular line one Saturday evening, then another the following week – provide in two or three minutes exactly what we all need to make us ‘ready for (Christ’s) perfect will’ on ‘the first day of the week’ as well as during the rest of it.