27 July 2019
Thus could I sing and thus rejoice:
‘but it is not so with me’
I have been working this week on tomorrow morning’s sermons on prayer.
In tomorrow’s reading from Saint Luke’s Gospel, some of the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. He has been praying on his own, but instead of teaching them to pray on their own, he teaches them to pray communally and collectively the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
The words are plural, but they illustrated by examples of individual behaviour: a friend who has an unexpected visitor late at night and needs to borrow food to feed his guest and offer proper hospitality; a child who is hungry and who expects to be fed with fish, not with a snake, to be fed with an egg, not with a scorpion.
It is the role of a priest to teach people how to pray. It is an easier task to teach people to bring their needs before God in prayer or to pray giving thanks for the blessings they know they have received in life.
It is more difficult to teach people to pray for the needs of others or to give thanks for the blessings that others receive when there is no obvious benefit or ‘pay-off’ for the person who is praying.
And, indeed, it is much more difficult to pray for our needs, when we know those needs are never going to be met, or to pray in words of thanksgiving when we have nothing, when everything is slipping away, as a victim, as an oppressed person, as someone who has fallen, who is forgotten or who is deemed by others as not worth caring for.
During my prayers last night, using the Jewish prayer book Service of the Heart, edited by Rabbi John D Rayner and Rabbi Chaim Stern, I came across, in a section on the theme of justice, a poem by William Blake (1757-1827) that touches on many of these problems.
William Blake writes about ease in prayer that often comes with everyday indifference to the poor in Vala or The Four Zoas, ‘Night the Seventh,’ ll. 111-29:
It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun
And in the vintage and to sing on the waggon loaded with corn.
It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted,
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer,
To listen to the hungry raven’s cry in wintry season
When the red blood is fill’d with wine and with the marrow of lambs.
It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements,
To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughter house moan;
To see a god on every wind and a blessing on every blast;
To hear sounds of love in the thunder storm that destroys our enemies’ house;
To rejoice in the blight that covers his field, and the sickness that cuts off his children,
While our olive and vine sing and laugh round our door, and our children bring fruits and flowers.
Then the groan and the dolour are quite forgotten, and the slave grinding at the mill,
And the captive in chains, and the poor in the prison, and the soldier in the field
When the shatter’d bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead.
It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity:
Thus could I sing and thus rejoice: ‘but it is not so with me.’
‘Compel the poor to live upon a crust of bread, by soft mild arts.
Smile when they frown, frown when they smile; and when a man looks pale
With labour and abstinence, say he looks healthy and happy;
And when his children sicken, let them die; there are enough
Born, even too many, and our earth will be overrun
Without these arts. If you would make the poor live with temper,
With pomp give every crust of bread you give; with gracious cunning
Magnify small gifts; reduce the man to want a gift, and then give with pomp.
Say he smiles if you hear him sigh. If pale, say he is ruddy.
Preach temperance: say he is overgorg’d and drowns his wit
In strong drink, though you know that bread and water are all
He can afford. Flatter his wife, pity his children, till we can
Reduce all to our will, as spaniels are taught with art.’