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Prayer for the Week

02 November 2006

My God, I pray not for myself alone, but for him who is as dear to me as my own soul. Suffer us, till life ceases, to bear each other's burdens. Knit our hearts together in steadfast love. May we walk together in the narrow way, upheld by mutual prayer, and our children with us. Perfect in heaven the love begun on earth. Smite us in an eternal bond, and let nothing put asunder those whom thou hast joined together.

Josephine Butler 1828-1906

JOSEPHINE BUTLER'S prayer, written for her husband George, seems like a pleasantly measured petition for commitment and mutual support in their life together. It is biblical in its echoes of the narrow way of Matthew 7, the mutual prayer of Ecclesiastes 4, and the shared burdens of Galatians 6. It echoes the marriage service of the Book of Common Prayer.

Although it is generally applicable to any couple contemplating or already engaged in marriage, there appears nothing particularly special about it: it is neither as eloquent as many of the collects of the Prayer Book, nor, on the surface, personal enough to offer a window on to the life of a great Victorian Christian social reformer.

Yet behind the generality is a particular tragedy, and in the plea for continued faithfulness is a knowledge of desperate sadness, which make this prayer moving and profound. Josephine and George's six-year-old daughter Eva died in 1863, after she fell down the stairs.

Josephine's biographer Jane Jordan records how, not long after Eva's death, Josephine found George alone and pale, and forced him to talk cheerfully of their daughter. The prayer refers to him in this place of grief, and hints at Josephine's fear that she might lose her husband as well as her daughter.

This is not a prayer about the loss of a child, though; it is a prayer for a deeply loved husband, about marriage that is coloured by loss. It does not seek to minimise the pain of his grief, but it reminds him of the solid foundations on which their life together, and with their remaining children, is built.

It offers hope that they will be reunited with Eva, but balances the consolation of heaven with the steadfast commitments of life now. And, without naming George's imprisonment in grief, it models how love can take you out of yourself when you care more for the other than for yourself: "I pray not for myself alone," she begins, setting aside her own temptation to introspection or even self-pity at this point.

When we love God and love another, we can long for that person's happiness, and share his or her sorrow in a way that makes us more fully human. Josephine Butler herself suggested that her later work with prostitutes and the destitute was fired by her loss: she wrote that she "became possessed with an irresistible urge to go forth and find some pain keener than my own, to meet with people more unhappy than myself".

Here, though, when her grief is still raw, she turns first to the love of her husband, which has sustained her in her public and private life, and to living with the grief that only they, as Eva's parents, fully share. She offers him a prayer, which, we must imagine, she has already prayed for him, perhaps in the hope that he will pray it for her, and that God will help them both lead each other on from sorrow to new life.

This is a model of marriage: each carries the other, each is sustained by the other, and God is at the centre. Whether we are contemplating the shared history of our own relationship in marriage, or seeing others undertake that commitment afresh, we can be reminded by this prayer's generous commitment - particularly if we have our own experience of loss - that in bearing one another's burdens we are trying to do for each other what God already does for us.

The Revd Dr Joanne Woolway Grenfell is part-time Priest-in-Charge in Manor Ecumenical Parish, Sheffield.

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