25 May 2019

Two prayers and a poem
at the end of the day

‘I have been one acquainted with the night’ … South Main Street in Wexford late at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Since I recovered a prayer book that I thought was long lost, Service of the Heart, I have been using material in it for my personal, evening prayers for the last few months.

This Service of the Heart was published in London half a century ago by the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues in 1967, and the edition I have is dated 1969. I came across it while I was living in Wexford, and I thought I had lost it in recent moves between Dublin and Askeaton. So, I was delighted to rediscover it on a bookshelf in the Rectory a few months ago.

Two of the principal contributors to this book were Rabbi John Rayner and Rabbi Chaim Stern, who wrote or rewrote many of the prayers included here.

For 20 years, John Desmond Rayner (1924-2005) was the head of the Liberal and Progressive movement in Anglo Jewry, and his obituary in the Guardian said ‘some people took his Angloism to be a little too close to Anglicanism.’

He was born Hans Sigismund Rahmer in Berlin, and came to Britain with some of the last Jewish children rescued in 1939 in the kindertransport programme organised by Sir Nicholas Winton, who was named by Theresa May in her speech in Downing Street yesterday. He changed his name at school in Durham, and went on to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, becoming a Hebrew scholar and a Bible and Talmud expert.

He began his ministry at the South London Liberal Jewish synagogue in Streatham before moving to St John’s Wood Road. He was chairman of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and president of the Union for Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, and co-edited Service of the Heart and The Gate of Repentance.

Dr Chaim Stern (1930-2001), an American Reform rabbi, is regarded as the foremost liturgist of Reform Judaism. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and studied in Orthodox yeshivot as a child. But the Holocaust caused him to become far more secular than his family.

An outspoken political activist, he travelled to Mississippi to fight for civil rights as a Freedom Rider in 1961. In 1962, he became rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London. Although Stern returned to the US in 1965, he was back in London in 1967-1968 back, lecturing at Leo Baeck College and serving as rabbi of Westminster Synagogue. He was a senior rabbi in Miami, Florida, when he died in 2001.

He co-edited two prayer books for the Liberal Jewish Movement in England, On the Doorposts of Your House and Gates of Joy, and edited the new liturgy of the Reform movement.

One of the prayers I have used on evenings this week is a new prayer for a Sabbath Eve Service, writer by John Rayner and Chaim Stern:

When day departs and the darkness of night descends, our eyes are drawn upward to the heavens. We see immensities beyond our power to comprehend; and awed by the grandeur of the design of the Creation, our hearts cry out: ‘O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth.’

A similar, longer version of this prayer was written for a Weekday Evening Service by Chaim Stern and John Rayner, with additional quotations from Psalm 19: 2-5a and Psalm 8: 10:

‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament tells of the work of his hands. Day unto day pours out speech, and there are no words, their voice is not heard – yet their call goes out to the ends of the world.’

When day departs and the darkness of night descends, our eyes are drawn upward to the heavens. Then, even more clearly than the light of the sun, we see the grandeur of Creation’s design. We see immensities beyond our power to comprehend, and our hearts cry out: ‘O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the world!’

Although the world is but a beam of dust in a universe that is vast beyond imagining, we trust in God, and believe that he rules all things far and near, great and small, from the remotest star to the air around us. We therefore submit ourselves to his will, and in the dark of evening we seek the light of his presence.

Along with these prayers, I have been reading a well-known poem by Robert Frost, included in Service of the Heart in a section of prayers under the heading ‘Loneliness’:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say goodbye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

‘When day departs and the darkness of night descends’ … High Street in Wexford late at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Robert Frost, ‘Acquainted with the Night’ from The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright © 1964, 1970 by Leslie Frost Ballantine. Copyright 1936, 1942 © 1956 by Robert Frost. Copyright 1923, 1928, © 1969 by Henry Holt and Co.

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