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Word from Wormingford

24 June 2009

Ronald Blythe takes a rueful look at his daily prayer

EVERY morning, more or less without fail, I descend to the nether regions, i.e. the kitchen, to feed the white cat and to drink tea. She rolls herself into a sleeping ball, and I, immensely awake, daydream through a lattice of hazel boughs. The sun or the rain filters through. Other than a Tudor creak from a beam, there is silence. No news is good news. I wish I could say that I was deep in literary thought. 

But what is it that I am deep in? Prayer?

What I do know is that I must not enter into this dawn state when I take the service, holy though it may be, because silence is its chief companion, and would create consternation in the nave. Thus I take to prayer language in public, and prayer wordlessness (I suppose) as I gaze on Duncan’s about-to-be-cut hay meadow. 

George Herbert, famously, let his imagination rip when he said what prayer was. It was a personal choice. My favourite line is “A kind of tune, which all things heare and fear” — fear in the old meaning of respect. In his other prayer poem, he says that if he had to choose just one of the many gifts of life, “all should go” so that “I and deare prayer would together dwell”.

His mother’s friend John Donne took a different, God-bothering line. “Earnest prayer”, he said, “hath the nature of Importunity: We press, we importune God . . . 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 and take him prisoner . . .” All this in a sermon. 

“Teach us how to pray”, surpris­ingly request the followers of Christ, for as Jews they did little else but pray all day long. He stripped down prayer’s prolixity to that handful of perfect words. 

To return, however: 6 a.m. at the ancient house, morning by morning without fail, and as delightful as 6 p.m. without fail, when I have a drink, habit being the staff of life, wide awake, I turn the green view through the kitchen window into a kind of mantra. It is why the now 30-feet-high hazel has been spared the coppicing axe. If it were not there, I could see all the hill, not just these glittering fragments of it between the ever-moving leaves. And if the hill was not there, I could see Nayland. And one could go on. 

How I wish I could say that I was doing something admirable and impressive, such as meditation. How I wish I could tell the world that I was looking at “Heaven in ordinarie . . . the milkie way, the bird of Para­dise”. And it is far too early to equate the ringing from Little Horkesley tower, which indeed does fill Botten­goms Farm with sound, with “Church-bels beyond the starres heard”. Thus there is this marvellously wordless start of the new day to be — what in? Happy, certainly. Vacant, if one wants to be critical. Ageless, if it helps. “Take me prisoner, I don’t mind,” says God, “but behave yourself.” 

What bliss to have passed the age of morning shouts of “Bathroom’s free!” and “You’ll miss the train!” What a mercy to be delivered from breakfast TV. God is good. He says: “Look out of the window for as long as you like, then eat oranges and read Proust. Call it prayer if you must. But remember where you are when you say ‘Let us pray’. No wanderings of the mind.” 

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