O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us.
Based on Psalm 40.13
THIS is the prayer that opens the Offices of morning and evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. We can easily miss the importance of these short sentences, these cries to God for help. But they are the foundation for all our praying.
John Cassian (c.360-433) describes this as the formula for contemplation which “was given us by a few of the oldest Fathers who remained. To maintain an unceasing recollection of God it is to be ever set before you.”
He goes on to say: “This verse has been rightly selected from the whole Bible for this purpose. It fits every mood and temper of human nature, every temptation, every circumstance. It contains an invocation of God, a humble confession of faith, a reverent watchfulness, a meditation upon our frailty, a confidence in God’s answer, an assurance of his ever-present support.”
Cassian sees this prayer as the key to abiding in God’s grace, which is why it is his formula for contemplation. It is a prayer that we can keep in our hearts and minds from the moment we awake in the morning, and through all the different challenges of the day.
When I was a young Christian, I was taught that a simple way of praying through the day was to use “arrow prayers”. We can simply say to God: “Help, Lord,” or “Thank you, Lord,” as different situations arise. Psalm 40.13 is a kind of arrow prayer, to which we can return again and again throughout the day. (Please note, though, that if you are using the Book of Common Prayer, it is Psalm 40.16.)
At the heart of contemplative prayer is the still centre, even in times of conflict and suffering. Each of us can learn to become more aware of this still centre, as we grow in our practice of spending time in silent prayer.
We make time — each day, if possible — to be still, to come before the presence of God, and to let go of all our thoughts and ideas. Our intention is simply to be with God, who loves us unconditionally and accepts us as we are, no matter what state our hearts are in. Then we can train ourselves to cry out, or to pray silently: “O God, make speed to save me,” throughout our day, and this will help to keep us centred in God and his unfailing mercy.
It seems to me, more and more, that Gethsemane tells the truth about what it means for us to follow Jesus in the weakness of our human nature. Each of us is constantly in need of God’s help, no matter how outwardly confident we might seem. The reality is that none of us is in control, or able to meet every challenge that faces us.
The more I consider that I understand all that is happening around me, and that I have the answers, the more it is that I am desperately in need of God’s help. We deny the Lord, we falter, and we fall asleep, and become distracted when we should be vigilant and prayerful. Here, again, this prayer of prayers calls us back to our need of God and his help and mercy. “O God, make speed to save us.”
This is a prayer that acknowledges our weakness; our inability, of ourselves, to live as we have been called; and our continual need of God. We know within our hearts that we do not, and cannot, love as God loves us; that even our best love is full of self-concern. The truth is that we are continually in need of God’s help and mercy.
“How blest are those who know their need of God; the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs,” the New English Bible (Matthew 5.3) says. If we are wise, we will take this great truth to the very centre of our praying, and we will call out again and again: “O God, make speed to save us; O Lord, make haste to help us.”
The Revd Ian Cowley is Spirituality Co-ordinator for the diocese of Salisbury, and the author of The Contemplative Minister (BRF, 2015).