Friday, 13 November 2009

Praying in the words of Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake ... "it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same unto the end, until it be thoroughly finished, which yieldeth the true glory”

Patrick Comerford

As I was working on an order for next week’s service of prayers and blessing to mark the completion of the building project at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, I came across once again what is known popularly as “Drake’s Prayer.”

As his ship, the Elizabeth Bonaventure, lay at anchor at Cape Sakar on 17 May 1587 after the sacking of Sagress, Sir Francis Drake wrote to Elizabeth I’s secretary of state, Sir Francis Walsingham, saying:

“There must be a begynnyng of any great matter, but the contenewing unto the end untyll it be thoroughly ffynyshed yeldes the trew glory.”

These words were later adapted by Eric Milner-White (1884-1963), who is credited with introducing the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols during his time as Dean of King’s College, Cambridge (1918-1941).

In a collection of prayers of early times, compiled by Eric Milner-White and published in 1941 as he was moving on from King’s to become Dean of York, he adapted Drake’s words in what has become a well-known prayer:

O Lord God,
when thou givest to thy servants
to endeavour any great matter,
grant us also to know that it is not the beginning,
but the continuing of the same unto the end,
until it be thoroughly finished, which yieldeth the true glory;
through him who for the finishing of thy work
laid down his life, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.

— after Francis Drake (c. 1540-1596)


The official form for the National Day of Prayer in 1941 said this prayer was “by Sir Francis Drake” and this misattribution continued, so that prayer has become popularly known as “Drake’s Prayer.”

But there is another prayer that is also attributed to Francis Drake. After the Golden Hinde sailed from Portsmouth to raid Spanish Gold before sialing on to the non-Spanish parts of California, the adventurer and navigator is said to have written this prayer:

Disturb us, Lord,
when we are too well pleased with ourselves;
when our dreams have come true
because we have dreamed too little,
when we arrived safely
because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
we have lost our thirst
for the waters of life;
having fallen in love with life,
we have ceased to dream of eternity
and in our efforts to build a new earth,
we have allowed our vision
of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly —
to venture on wider seas
where storms will show your mastery;
where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back
the horizons of our hopes;
and to push back the future
in strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our Captain,
who is Jesus Christ.


This prayer exists in different versions, and many of these versions include lines that sound too modern to be Drake’s own words. Indeed, it is difficult to be certain whether any of this prayer was written or prayed by Drake himself, although, as the first person to circumnavigate the globe, he would certainly have understood its sentiment.

There is a well-known saying: “A ship in the harbour is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” Food, shelter, and warmth are not enough on their own. In order to flourish, we need a dream – a sense of purpose. A dream come true is, by definition, not a dream any more. And when our dreams come true, we need to dream new dreams, for: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 28.19).

So often, it is true, church life is a tussle between young people who want to try new things and older people who so want to keep things as they are. But young adventurers also need older people with wisdom and perspective who can still retain and nurture a healthy sense of adventure.

Drake’s prayer expresses the excitement of faith. It is so easy for some to dismiss faith as a crutch for the weak and prayer as a sign of weakness. But if all our prayers were prayers for help, then would there be nothing more to life than merely coping with it and whatever it brings us?

In times of strength, we also need prayers that lift us out of our easy contentments, and we need to be challenged often to imagine new worlds, to dream dreams, to want to sail beyond the horizon.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute