Speaking to the Soul: Writing and Prayer

Do not wait; the time will never be ‘just right.’ Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along. – George Herbert


We live in a world of words. We hear them from the time we’re born, and learn to connect sounds with words as we grow. In elementary school we learn to identify first letters, then put those letters together to make words we can read and write for ourselves. Whether we turn into avid readers or not, we depend on words every day of our lives. For some, the release of words onto a page (or screen) is not just satisfying but something of a compulsion, regardless of what it is we release.


George Herbert was a poet and orator, a man whose command of words made his life what it was.

Born in 1593, he was a member of the aristocracy. One of his mother’s close friends was John Donne who took an interest in the young man. Herbert was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. Proficient in Latin, he became the Public Orator for the university, the person whose job was to write acknowledgements for gifts to the library or welcoming speeches for visiting dignitaries. His work caught the eye of James I, who seemed impressed enough to be on the verge of offering him a job as an ambassador. James’ death in 1625 put an end to that idea and also to any position in the royal court. Herbert had originally entered Trinity in order to become a priest but had become sidetracked. He returned to that calling and became a devout and very much loved vicar and rector.


Herbert is credited with writing a book called A Priest to the Temple or The Country Parson, a guide for rural parish clergy. He also wrote poetry which he kept private until just before his death when he sent them to his friend Nicholas Ferrar (of Little Giddings) who published them shortly after Herbert’s death in 1633. Herbert was 39 at the time of his death which was probably caused by a long history of consumption or tuberculosis. His book of poems, The Temple, is still available in print and online.


Herbert’s poetry was more than just writing. It was a reflection of his prayers to God, touched by the same mysticism that had been Donne’s signature. Holding them back from publication was an act of humility. Like many writers, he was not sure his work would be judged as “good” writing by readers. Besides, the poems were both an offering to God and one side of a dialog, a very personal thing. Luckily, the poems were published and have become part of our literary heritage both as exquisite poetry and as inspirational readings which have become prayers for us and also as hymns for our worship.


Writing is not just for writers like Herbert, Donne, or the authors of our favorite books. Whether it is a thank-you letter to Aunt Mabel for a gift or a thousand-page exposition on a facet of history, we all write from time to time. In school, one of the most feared assignments is often writing an essay on some topic. As adults we have to write reports for work or notes to have Junior excused from class because he has the flu. Some people write letters to the editor of the local paper, and some blog about their special interests or even daily lives. Others journal for themselves alone, seeking release of feelings, thoughts, or insights. Then there are those, like Herbert, who write as a form of prayer.


The quotation from Herbert is an encouragement to writers and would-be writers, even those who don’t consider themselves writers at all. The same quotation works for prayer itself.  As Christians, most of us can recite the Lord’s Prayer or a Hail Mary or even the prayer to St Anthony for lost things, but, other than that, we are often reduced to “Help!” or “Thank you.” We open the prayer book on Sundays but not so much during the week. We lead such busy lives, when would we have time to sit down and pray, much less write?


Herbert’s advice is spot on.  We need to begin where we are, not where we think we should be. If five minutes of prayer (or writing or both) is too much, we could start with two or three. Instead of just rattling off a bunch of requests, we could write them down. It often takes longer to write than to think, so it would slow us down, allowing God to get a word in edgewise.


The pray-er or the writer may not have the eloquence of Herbert, but then, Herbert probably didn’t have it from the beginning either. He wrote, though, and picked up tools and skills as he went along, becoming both eloquent and proficient, traits that we can read in his words, poems, and prayers.


I wonder–what would happen if we wrote down our prayers instead of just reading or mentally saying them? What if we wrote to God as a friend, not as a great being in the sky who is unknowable?  Even if we erased the electrons on the computer screen, or burned or shredded the paper it was written on, it might spark a new way of thinking about, or doing, something that may be familiar already. Who knows? We might be another Herbert in the making, or we might just find a deeper, more insightful way to pray.


Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter.  She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale


Image: Wikimedia public domain

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