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Poetry, power prayer : Part 3



I don’t know how many of my readers share this experience, but I find that I am acutely self-conscious when it comes to prayer—in particular, regarding the words I am using. This is in one respect a bad thing, as it involves too much head and too little heart. In another respect, though, I believe that this self-consciousness is healthy, as I shall suggest below.

And it suggests a bond between the language of poetry and the language of prayer, for, as poets such as T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden have reminded us, precision is a hallmark of fine poetry. Nowhere more than in poetic texts is the search for the best word in the best place so crucial. For some years I concluded my prayers by reciting the Lord’s Prayer, memorized ever since the confusing experience of school assembly. The words would roll out—by rote—with virtually no attention paid to them by me (I trust that the good Lord was all ears).

I failed to notice the beauty of such lines as “Hallowed be thy name.” I also failed to pick up on lines that surely don’t work as well as they should. Somewhat immodestly, I have now reworded those lines. After “Forgive us our trespasses” I no longer say “As we forgive them that trespass against us”, because, sadly, I fail to do so; I am consistently guilty of harbouring grudges. So I say “Guide us into forgiving those who trespass against us.”

More crucially—though I may be missing out on a point of theology here—I baulk at the line “Lead us not into temptation.” Are we not addressing ourselves to the Lord? And He leads us to salvation, not temptation. So, I say “Let no-one or any thing lead us into temptation.” Of course an alternative is to use the version of the prayer in the New English Bible—but the language is not as beautiful, the poetry is diminished.

About a year ago one of my spiritual mentors sent me a prayer card, with a Marian prayer that rapidly became my favourite, on account of its meaningfulness, its strength in aiding mindfulness and—very importantly—the beauty of its language. Here it is.

Holy Spirit, Lord and giver of life, who didst overshadow Mary that she might become the Mother of Jesus our Saviour; do thou likewise work silently in my heart to form within me the fulness of His redeemed and redeeming humanity:

give me a share in his loving heart to burn with love for God and love for men; give me a share in His joy and His sorrow, His weakness and His strength, His labour for the world’s salvation. And may Mary, blessed among women, Mother of our Saviour, pray for me; that Christ may be formed in me; that I may live in union of heart and will with Jesus Christ, her Son, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.

I should like to draw readers’ attention to some of the most beautiful recognitions, beautifully worded, in that prayer. First there is the startling word-choice—“overshadow” in the second line and “burn with love” further down. Then the use of parallelism (repetition with variation) in the phrase “His redeemed and / redeeming humanity” and once again (with “loving”, “love” and “love”) in the three lines that follow.

Finally there is the beautiful and startling turn in the last six lines of the prayer, when the addressee becomes not the Holy Spirit, as hitherto, but Mary. In short, this is a prayer that enables the joy we find through faith, by accessing one of the greatest of our God-given gifts, poetic language. A perfect example of poetry in the service of prayer.

Chris Dunton

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