Prayer the Church’s banquet, Angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world-transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear,
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
It’s worth noting that there’s no main verb in this poem, just the word “prayer” followed by 23 descriptions of prayer. Ever since I became acquainted with this most excellent verse, I’ve been trying to reverse-engineer it. My basic conviction about the poem is that Herbert didn’t make his descriptions up, but gathered them from Scripture and from the common Christian experience of prayer. So every once and a while I’ll take one of his descriptions and mull it over, trying to figure out where Herb got his material from. Over the last several years, this has been a great help to me in prayer, and has taught me a lot about prayer.
“Engine against th’ Almighty–” writing in the early 17th century, Herbert wasn’t talking about a diesel engine, or even a steam engine. The engine in this line is a siege engine. Prayer is laying siege to God. Does that sound terrible? It would be, if Jesus hadn’t talked about prayer in the same way.
In two different parables, Jesus models a certain impudence for his disciples when it comes to prayer. In Luke 18, Jesus draws the connection between the believer and the persistent widow. Just as the widow bothered the unjust judge and nearly beat him down by her continual coming, so we are to approach God. Of course God is not unjust, and is never bothered or beaten down by prayer; nevertheless, Jesus holds up the widow as a model for us.
In Luke 11, Jesus asks his listeners to imagine going to a friend at midnight and asking for bread. He points out that when a man is in bed along with his children and the door is locked, friendship alone doesn’t motivate him to get up, but rather the impudence of the knocker. He then launches into the well known “ask, seek, knock” verses. Again, the point is not that God is a stingy friend, but that we are to pray in the same manner as the man seeking bread at midnight.
In my own experience, I have stopped seeking God in prayer about a particular need because I didn’t get an answer after asking a few times. I’ve had other people tell me the same thing. “I prayed about it for a week, but then it seemed like I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I stopped.” I recognize that impulse, but Jesus calls it faithlessness (Luke 18:8). Surely there will come a time when we, like Paul, need to stop asking and rely on God’s sufficient grace (2 Corinthians 12:8-9), but I fear that many of us reach that point too quickly, when God would have us to continue in fervent prayer. It sounds impudent to talk like this, but impudence is exactly what Jesus commends. John Donne said it well:
Earnest Prayer hath the nature of Importunity: We press, we importune God… Prayer hath the nature of Impudency: We threaten God in Prayer… And God suffers this impudency and more. Prayer hath the nature of Violence; In the public prayers of the Congregation, we besiege God, says Tertullian, and we take God Prisoner, and bring God to our Conditions; and God is glad to be straitened by us in that siege.