Prayer for the week

by
30 May 2014

Philip Martin prays for the despairing

ISTOCK

A Prayer for persons troubled in mind or in conscience

O Blessed Lord, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comforts: We beseech thee, look down in pity and compassion upon this thy afflicted servant. Thou writest bitter things against him, and makest him to possess his former iniquities; thy wrath lieth hard upon him, and his soul is full of trouble: But, O merciful God, who hast written thy holy word for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of thy holy Scriptures, might have hope; give him a right understanding of himself, and of thy threats and promises; that he may neither cast away his confidence in thee, nor place it anywhere but in thee. Give him strength against all his temptations, and heal all his distempers. Break not the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax. Shut not up thy tender mercies in displeasure; but make him to hear of joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Deliver him from fear of the enemy, and lift up the light of thy countenance upon him, and give him peace, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

From the Order for the Visitation of the Sick, Book of Common Prayer (1662)
 

IN ALL my pastoral visits, I have the Prayer Book to hand. Some parts seem unlikely to be of use, but always, when tried and tested words are required, it delivers - not least because the whole Psalter is there.

This prayer recognises that in the human condition is a need at times to lament, to acknowledge darkness without a too-hasty reaching for the light. Amid its density of scriptural allusions are two references ("thy wrath lieth hard upon me," and "my soul is full of trouble") to Psalm 88, which, uniquely among the psalms, offers not a single ray of sunshine to relieve the expression of imprisoned despair. To anyone in that kind of locked-away state of mind, such a truthful recognition as this prayer gives comes as a relief. Acknowledging the reality goes some way towards the possibility of change.

It is a long prayer, but difficult to abbreviate. Troubles of the mind or conscience can be felt as relentless, and require a robust, prolonged response. This prayer's sequence of scriptural images at first (as far as "his soul is full of trouble") rides the oncoming waves of despair, and then (from "give him a right understanding of himself" onwards) reverses them. It recognises that calm is hard-wrung from despair, and helps to turns the tide.

The compilers who added this prayer to the Visitation of the Sick in 1662, wrote from a theological grounding; but prayers are not themselves doctrinal statements. So we need not be too disturbed that the language here appears to attribute the source of woe to God.

The important point is that, to someone in such a case, despair seems to be cast so hard that one fears it must be deserved or intended. The prayer takes seriously what is experienced, and yet directs our mind towards a God who is both strong and sympathetic. He who broke the prison doors of the tomb is able to reach into our own bleakest incarceration.

Temptations and "distempers" are not much spoken of today, but experienced often enough. When I meet them, this prayer leads me towards "a right understanding" of other struggling souls, and my own.

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

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