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Prayer for the week

17 October 2014

Ian Robins uses a prayer attributed to King Henry VI


"A heart replete with thankfulness": an engraving of Henry VI by Edward Bocquet, published in the Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of 1806

"A heart replete with thankfulness": an engraving of Henry VI by Edward Bocquet, published in the Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of 1806

O Lord Jesus Christ, who hast created and redeemed me,  and hast brought me unto that which now I am, thou knowest what thou wouldst do with me; do with me according to thy will; for thy tender mercy's sake. Amen.

Attributed to King Henry VI (1421-71), and translated from the Latin by Eric Milner-White (1884-1963)

It was courageous of my wife-to-be to accept a version of this prayer using the first person plural as an expression of our growing together in the early days of our courtship. We found it together, on a card that we saw on a visit to a country church.

It was not easy for the Curate and his girlfriend to build a relationship in clandestine meetings, avoiding the prying eyes of the congregation. One parishioner, having seen us dancing at the Blackpool Tower ballroom on Saturday night, rebuked me: "You should have been preparing your sermon." But that had been done, and typed up, days before, or I could not have enjoyed our night out.

My not-even-yet fiancée often joined me in church before she went to work, to share the daily Office, and we were supported by a few perceptive elderly ladies who (we realised later) were kindly playing chaperone.

The prayer is firmly Trinitarian - it is not an abstract doctrinal statement, but a piece of theological praxis, emphasising the divine activity. From that mysterious era when the Big Bang - roughly 13.8 billion years ago - set something off, the "making" has evolutionarily moved on to that precious moment when we were made - she a few years later than me.

It was the Redeemer, through his Church, who brought us together on the night of my ordination as a deacon, and in due course, I prepared her for confirmation. And the "knowing" Spirit has "brought us" over more than 60 years of our ministry and life together.

Our prayer is attributed to King Henry VI: reputedly devout, he had reason enough to pray like this. Inheriting the English throne at the age of nine months, he was manipulated by relatives and power-seeking aristocrats, but remained essentially a man of peace, founding Eton and King's College, Cambridge, where the prayer is often used.

But tensions in Ireland and France, and the Wars of the Roses reduced him to mental breakdown, and, although he returned to the throne for a brief period, he was murdered in the Tower of London - according to tradition, as he knelt at prayer. If this was his prayer, the words "thou knowest what thou wouldest do with me" must have rung hollowly at times.

For my wife and me, with less awesome responsibilities, the prayer has sustained us in the joys and tensions of several parish ministries, in the fostering of children and the care of elderly relatives, and in the surprise period when my opposition to the accepted practice of "indiscriminate baptism" (News, 27 February 2008) led me to abandon the parish and become an RE teacher.

Together or separated, we have made this prayer part of our morning Office or late-night commendation. Recently, as I lay in hospital awaiting major surgery and wondering whether God did know what he was doing with us, the prayer had its place in the noise of visiting time.

Oddly, although we have rejoiced in all the pantomimes of liturgical revision, and prefer to leave 1662 on a reverenced historical shelf, I cannot see us ever wishing to revise Henry VI's prayer. I hope that when time and physicality have the last word, it will be the prayer that has become part of our bloodstream that will pierce the veil, and maintain the relationship that has blessed us for so many years.

My priest father, founder in 1930 of the Refuge at St George's Crypt, Leeds, said to me once, at a time of bereavement: "If God is love, it cannot be that those who have learned to love in this life will be separated in what lies beyond." I trust our loving God knows what he is going to do with us then.

The Revd Ian D. H. Robins is a retired priest in the diocese of Blackburn.

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