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Prayer of the week

24 October 2014

Hester Jones uses a prayer-poem by Elizabeth Jennings

Sufferer who drew on the mystical tradition: Elizabeth Jennings

Sufferer who drew on the mystical tradition: Elizabeth Jennings

The Lord's Prayer

"Give us this day." Give us this day and night.
Give us the bread, the sky. Give us the power
To bend and not be broken by your light.

And let us soothe and sway like the new flower
Which closes, opens to the night, the day,
Which stretches up and rides upon a power

More than its own, whose freedom is the play
Of light, for whom the earth and air are bread.
Give us the shorter night, the longer day.

In thirty years so many words were spread,
And miracles. An undefeated death
Has passed as Easter passed, but those words said

Finger our doubt and run along our breath.

Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) from  The Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2012)

Elizabeth Jennings was born in Lincolnshire, and moved to Oxford in childhood, where she remained throughout her life. Her contemporaries Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin have somewhat eclipsed her in reputation; but her voice remains distinctive: limpid, elegant, reflective.

Like Plath, Jennings suffered from mental illness in her adult life, but, as a Roman Catholic, she drew on the tradition of the "dark night" of St John of the Cross to explore this suffering within the context of faith. Consequently, much of her poetry is marked by moments that contain both momentary glimpses of God's love and the experience of darkness, guilt, and God's absence.

In this poetic prayer, Jennings uses the terza rima form, in which interlocking lines rhyme alternately, and direct our attention onwards through three-line stanzas. Opposing ideas are brought together in this way: night and day; Christ's words (which the prayer quotes at its beginning), and personal petition; the flexible stance of grace, and the brittle rigidity of sin; the childlike openness of play, and the intellectual struggles of doubt; the immediacy of "this day", in contrast with and as a prelude to the eternal "longer day".

George Herbert is often a source of inspiration for Jennings, and his voice is heard here in the metaphor of the flower, whose natural inclination towards light becomes an image of hope. Herbert's poem "The Flower" includes a similar use of the metaphor, indeed.

Jennings's prayer follows the Lord's Prayer in addressing God by means of the first-person plural pronoun "we", and identifies the speaker's darkness with that of humans everywhere. It offers the speaker's sense of weakness to God, asking for it to be transformed by a power that is believed to reach beyond, to be "more than" the fragile constructions of earthly being.

The poem suggests that this shaping and liberating power may be known in fleeting moments, and through natural imagery, in the "play of light", for example. It is most fittingly expressed, however, in the creative response of the poem, which uses artistic form to harness and redirect human reaching towards God.

In the last tercet, the prayer looks back to Christ's life, and to its overcoming of death in teaching, in the miracles, and, above all, in crucifixion and resurrection. The words of the Lord's Prayer originate in that historical life (and the word "those" in contrast with "this day" reminds us of its distance). None the less, their power is such that they still live today, despite that passing of time.

Finally, the isolated last line of the poem, characteristic of the terza rima form, encapsulates the ambivalent resurrection-power present within the Lord's Prayer. This new life challenges us: it may "finger our doubt", as if in indictment of our brittleness and self-enclosure, alluding in its image to the desire of doubting Thomas to touch Christ's wounds.

Where Thomas looked to touch the Lord, however, here it is the words of Christ that seem to enter into, to "finger", the speaker's wound of doubt and dividedness. In their simplicity, in their wholeness, these words come so close and seem so alive that they "run along our breath", and make us whole.

The Revd Dr Hester Jones is Senior Lecturer in English at Bristol University, and Vicar of Abbots Leigh with Leigh Woods, in the diocese of Bristol.

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