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Prayer for the week

13 June 2014

Philip Martin dips into Bishop Cosin's book Private Devotions

"Fragility and mystery": a sculpture by Catalina Sureda

"Fragility and mystery": a sculpture by Catalina Sureda

Be thou a light unto my eyes, music to mine ears, sweetness to my taste, and full contentment to my heart. Be thou my sunshine in the day, my food at table, my repose in the night, my clothing in nakedness, and my succour in all necessities.

Lord Jesus, I give thee my body, my soul, my substance, my fame, my friends, my liberty, and my life. Dispose of me and all that is mine as it may seem best to thee and to the glory of thy blessed name. 

John Cosin (1594-1672)

I AM composing thoughts about this prayer in a flat belonging to an artist friend in Palma de Mallorca. The sculptures of Catalina Sureda, gathered about the room, convey both the fragility and the mystery of human beings. They direct their quiet, questioning gaze towards and past me, while the antiquated TV broadcasts the delightfully unsubtle soap operas that accompany this Spanish time of siesta.

On screen are the clumsily enacted human emotions amplified by portentous music; outside, there is the buzz and drone of a busy city street. The silent figures of sculpted clay, meanwhile, witness more eloquently to something vulnerable and yet transcendent within each of us.

John Cosin lived through tumultuous times. Gifted both pastorally and academically, he became a Prebendary of Durham Cathedral, and later Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, and University Vice-Chancellor. He composed a book of Private Devotions in 1627, from which this prayer is selected.

As the Puritans gained control, and the country lurched towards the self-destruction of Civil War, he was removed from his post and went into exile in Paris. At the Restoration, he played an important part in the attempt to find a religious consensus by means of the revised Book of Common Prayer of 1662. His last, still very active years were spent as Bishop of Durham, whose cathedral fabric exhibits several of his improvements.

The prayer's first part gently but comprehensively claims Christ's care for the whole of our earthly existence. It reduces each of our complicated lives to the simplicity of that of a cradled child. Each phrase is vivid, sensory, and about the body.

Eyes, ears, taste, heart, skin, stomach, our sleep, our nakedness, and our vulnerability: all are in­­­corpo­­rated here within the em­­brace and succour of a God who comes to us in frail and mortal form, beneath the radar of our fearful defences. Thus Jesus infil­trates our human-all-too-human lives with a human-made-truly-human hope. 

It is in the light and warmth of this assurance that the prayer's second section can then entrust all that we have and are to one, the only one, on whom we may fully depend. 

Amid the civil wars that rage outwardly or inwardly (and some­times within God's Church), tearing what is good and infecting all with distrust, this prayer corrects our perspective. It reminds us that ours is usually a frail and stumbling - or fallen - point of view. With this prayer, we own our humanity, acknowledge our need, and place our trust in one who travels with us.

We thus acknowledge our need of healing and help; we gain confidence that our future is best left to God, and, in the process, we grow in mercy and kindness towards others, all of whom share our predicament and our potential, even while some do not share our views.

Cosin's prayer, then, is an invitation to "make siesta"; to step aside from the busy life that so often leaves us feeling outside - or beside - ourselves; to turn down the internal TV soap opera of overacted emotions, and instead allow the quiet, questioning gaze of Another to hold us, heal us, and direct us towards a life more humble, handed over, holy, and assured.

The Revd Philip Martin is Vicar of St James's, Alderholt, in the diocese of Salisbury.


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