Photo May 10 2024, 7 29 08 PM

The Parson’s Praying

Several years ago, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law gave me a copy of The Works of George Herbert: In Prose and Verse. This book is an illustrated collection of prose and poetry edited by R. A. Willmott. Ornate and well-preserved, the book was printed sometime between 1856 (first publishing date) and 1883 (hand-written date in inside cover). However, Herbert’s works were written well before the 19th century. He lived from 1593-1632, during the Puritan movement. Interestingly, Willmott dedicated his edition to William Cooper, an 18th century English poet and hymn writer, who wrote my favorite hymn: There Is a Fountain, Filled with Blood.

I have recently made efforts to read parts of this treasured gift. Herbert’s works are written in Elizabethan English and are not easy to read. Similar to the original King James Version and other renaissance period literature, the ‘s’ looks like an ‘f’ and many words used are not found in modern dictionaries. Why go through this trouble, especially when I am not poetically inclined?

There are two primary reasons. First, in Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon argues that most preaching today is average because preachers cannot read texts and cannot write. Most contemporaries, if they read at all, read for content and information. They do not read to evaluate the art of communication, to study why an author writes they way he does. Gordon writes, “Culturally, then, we are no longer careful, close readers of texts, sacred or secular. We scan for information, but we do not appreciate literary craftsmanship. Exposition is therefore virtually a lost art.” Therefore, the first reason I am trying to read poetry is to become a better exegete and expositor. After all, narrative makes up more than 40% of the entire Bible and poetry makes up more than 30%. A skilled expositor not only preaches the content of Scripture but also aligns his sermons to the method of communication used by the Holy Spirit to divinely inspire Scripture.

Second, I am interested in Herbert’s collection because the main theme is the church. For example, he writes about the church porch, the church floor, church monuments, church music, and communion. One poem is called “The Church Militant.” He also writes about the “parson’s” or the pastor’s life. He writes prose about the pastor’s prayer, preaching, and his Sunday experience. I have been edified as I try to decipher what Herbert communicates about his love for the church. Equally as salient is meditating on his choice of words and phrases.

Copied below, with some of my own editing to ‘modernize’ the text for easier reading, is Herbert’s work entitled “The Parson’s Praying.” I challenge you to read it slowly, entering into the world of the author, but also into the environment he is creating. I believe he is recreating the element of worship known as the pastoral prayer. Almost humorously, he publicly admonishes the upper class who have a habit of showing up to church mid-prayer. There also seems to be a call and response element to this prayer, perhaps a liturgical element, as indicated by the congregation’s “part to answer.” I also find it challenging at times to determine if “he” refers God or to the parson. What do you think?

The Country Parson when he is to read divine services, composes himself to all possible reference; lifting up his heart and hands and eyes, and using all other gestures, which may express a hearty, and unfeigned devotion. This he does, first, as being truly touched and amazed with the Majesty of God, before whom he then presents himself; yet not as himself alone, but as presenting with himself the whole Congregation; whose sins he then bears, and brings with his own to the heavenly Altar to be bathed, and washed in the sacred Laver of Christ’s blood. Secondly, as this is the true reason of his inward fear, for he is content to express this outwardly to the utmost of his power; that being at first affected himself, he may affect also his people, knowing that no Sermon moves them so much to reverence, which they forget again, when they come to pray, as a devout behavior in the very act of praying. Accordingly his voice is humble, his words treatable, and flow; yet not to flow neither, as to let the fervency of the supplicant hang and die between speaking, but with a grave liveliness, between fear and zeal, pausing yet pressing, he performs his duty.

Besides his example, he having often instructed his people how to carry themselves in divine service, exacts of them all possible reverence, by no means enduring either talking, or sleeping, or gazing, or leaning, or half-kneeling, or any undutiful behavior in them, but causing them, when they sit, or stand, or kneel, to do all in a straight, and steady posture, as attending to what is done in the Church, and every one, man and child, answering aloud both Amen, and all other answers, which are on the Clerk’s and People’s part to answer; which answers also are to be done not in a huddling, or flubbering fashion, gaping, or scratching the head, or spitting even in the midst of their answer, but gently and pausably, thinking what they say; for that while they answer, “As it was in the beginning, etc.” they meditate as they speak, that God hath ever had his people, that have glorified him as well as now, and that he shall have forever. And the like in other answers.

This is that which the Apostle calls a reasonable service, Romans 12:1, when we speak not as Parrots, without reason, or offer up such sacrifices as they did of old, which was of beasts devoid of reason; but when we use our reason, and apply our powers to the service of Him that gives them. If there be any of the Gentry or Nobility of the parish, who sometimes make it a piece of state not to come at the beginning of service with their poor neighbors, but at mid-prayers, both to their own loss and of theirs also who gaze upon them when they come in, and neglect the present service of God, he by no means suffers it, but after divers gentle admonitions, if they persevere, he causes them to be presented: or if the poor Churchwardens be affrighted with their greatness, notwithstanding his instruction think they ought not to be for, but even to let he world sink, for they do their duty, he presents them himself; only protesting to them, that not any ill-will draws him to it, but the debt and obligation of his calling, being to obey God rather than men.

The Parson’s Praying, George Hebert

With Herbert’s prose in mind, I am looking forward to Lord’s Day service this Sunday morning! The pastoral prayer is a key feature of biblical worship, and a high mark of the week for Christians.