Martin Draper explores the prayer of prayer in hymnody
PRAYER is the soul’s sincere desire;
Uttered or unexpressed;
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.
2 Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of an eye
When none but God is near.
3 Prayer is the simplest form of speech
That infant lips can try;
Prayer the sublimest strains that reach
The majesty on high.
4 Prayer is the contrite sinner’s voice,
Returning from his ways,
While angels in their songs rejoice,
And cry, ‘Behold, he prays!’
5 Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
The Christian’s native air,
His watchword at the gate of death:
He enters heaven with prayer.
6 The saints in prayer appear as one
In word, and deed, and mind,
While with the Father and the Son
Sweet fellowship they find.
7 O thou, by whom we come to God,
The Life, the Truth, the Way,
The path of prayer thyself hast trod:
Lord, teach us how to pray.
JAMES MONTGOMERY 1771 – 1854
There are many hymns we can use as texts for personal prayer, but there are not many hymns about prayer. The best-known is James Montgomery’s Lord teach us how to pray aright, which makes an appearance on hymn lists when the Gospel for the day begins with the same request, before going on to Matthew’s or Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer.
The text above, by the same author, would make a much better hymn before the Gospel as, after a meditation on what prayer is, it concludes with the disciples’ request and thus introduces the text which will answer it.
The disciple’s plea indicates that people have always found prayer ‘difficult’, despite the fact that God ‘has given (us) a hearty desire to pray’ (BCP Collect for Trinity III). He planted that desire in our hearts. It’s the will to do it that is sometimes lacking.
As another Collect reminds us, God is ‘always more ready to hear than we to pray’ (BCP Collect for Trinity XII). Here’s where Montgomery’s text can help us.
‘Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,’ it begins: there is it again, that desire which lies deep within us, planted there by God, in whose image we are made. Prayer can be ‘uttered’, it goes on, or ‘unexpressed’; so there’s no need to worry about not being able to find the right words. It’s like a hidden fire within us.
The following verses give us a lovely list of what prayer might consist of: ‘the burden of a sigh’; ‘the falling of a tear’; an upward-looking glance, when it seems that ‘none but God is near.’ It’s ‘the simplest form of speech’, because even children can do it; it’s saying sorry, which results in joy in the presence of the angels of God when even one person does it; it’s ‘our vital breath’; the very air that we breathe; and it’s what we hope to do on our deathbed and when we enter into the presence of God in heaven.
The final verse is addressed to Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life; for the supreme exemplar of prayer is the only one who can answer the disciples’ and our request.
What strikes me most about the list is its very naturalness and simplicity. And that’s why, rather than worry about spiritual gymnastics, we should, in the words of the advertising slogan of a certain sportswear manufacturer, ‘just do it’.
And if you’re lost for words, or prefer to use words of others which articulate what you want to say, why not look through the hymnal to find some? You’ll find hymns of personal devotion in the Lent and Passiontide sections, as well as some of those for use at Holy Communion. And you can always look through the index of first lines for hymns which begin with the words ‘I’ or ‘My’. Scanning the index will throw up other first lines which contain the same pronoun and possessive adjective within them.
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. Amen.
(Collect for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity in The Book of Common Prayer, Common Worship and Divine Worship of the Personal Ordinariate)