*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Lent series: ‘Value of that Holy Religion’

by
03 March 2023

Rachel Mann starts our Lent series with a reflection on a prayer of Jane Austen

KT Bruce

Canon Rachel Mann photographed next to a poster of Jane Austen at the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature in Winchester University last weekend

Canon Rachel Mann photographed next to a poster of Jane Austen at the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature in Winchester University last week...

Give us grace, Almighty Father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our Hearts, as with our lips. Thou art every where present, from Thee no secret can be hid. May the knowledge of this, teach us to fix our Thoughts on Thee, with Reverence and Devotion that we pray not in vain.

Look with Mercy on the Sins we have this day committed, and in Mercy make us feel them deeply, that our Repentance may be sincere, & our resolutions stedfast of endeavouring against the commission of such in future. Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own Hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of Temper and every evil Habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own Souls.

May we now, and on each return of night, consider how the past day has been spent by us, what have been our prevailing Thoughts, Words, and Actions during it, and how far we can acquit ourselves of Evil.

Have we thought irreverently of Thee, have we disobeyed thy commandments, have we neglected any known duty, or willingly given pain to any human being? Incline us to ask our Hearts these questions Oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by Pride or Vanity.

Give us a thankful sense of the Blessings in which we live, of the many comforts of our lot; that we may not deserve to lose them by Discontent or Indifference.

Be gracious to our Necessities, and guard us, and all we love, from Evil this night. May the sick and afflicted, be now, and ever thy care); and heartily do we pray for the safety of all that travel by Land or by Sea, for the comfort & protection of the Orphan and Widow and that thy pity may be shewn upon all Captives and Prisoners.

Above all other blessings Oh! God, for ourselves, and our fellow-creatures, we implore Thee to quicken our sense of thy Mercy in the redemption of the World, of the Value of that Holy Religion in which we have been brought up, that we may not, by our own neglect, throw away the salvation thou hast given us, nor be Christians only in name. Hear us Almighty God, for His sake who has redeemed us, and taught us thus to pray. . .

Jane Austen

 

FEW who know her novels would be surprised to hear that Jane Austen was at ease in the language of faith. From Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Collins to Emma’s Mr Elton, and on to Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park, her novels positively bulge with clergy. She was a child of the rectory, and one of her brothers was ordained. Fewer will be aware that she also wrote prayers. Only three are extant, each written for evening devotions, and saved for posterity by her beloved sister, Cassandra. This first prayer centres on a petition for mercy and grace.

In her book on Austen’s spirituality, Paula Hollingsworth notes that, in the Georgian rural Church of England, “Christian faith was practised without excess of showy religious devotion, respected people’s consciences rather than being overly intrusive . . . and expected that people would recognise their moral duty to their neighbours in a way that was appropriate to their place in society” (The Spirituality of Jane Austen, Lion, 2017).

Austen’s prayer sits comfortably in a vision of faith which does not make windows into people’s souls. It also shows, however, how such “discreet” religion can model steadfast and passionate faith. Its opening petition balances a tender request for grace with a recognition that those who follow Jesus Christ should not simply go through the outward performance of religion. Its focus on the inner disposition of those who follow Christ reveals the depths of Austen’s faith.

 

AS A cradle Anglican, Austen was a woman formed in and through the rhythms and sureties of the Book of Common Prayer. We hear echoes of it throughout her prayer, not least the collect for purity, when she says: “Thou art every where present, from Thee no secret can be hid.” As one would expect of a person formed by the Prayer Book, Austen’s words show no fear of talking honestly about human wickedness while recognising that we need not be crushed by sin. Austen hopes we will be taught “to fix our thoughts on Thee, with reverence and devotion that we pray not in vain”.

In Mansfield Park, the heroine, Fanny Price, laments the loss of the practice of daily family devotions. She says: “It is a pity . . . that the custom should have been discontinued. It was a valuable part of former times. There is something in a chapel and chaplain so much in character with a great house, with one’s ideas of what such a household should be! A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer, is fine!”

While many readers have found Fanny a somewhat priggish heroine, perhaps she comes close here to articulating Austen’s own view on devotion. It is certainly not difficult to imagine how her prayer’s humble, yet determined, interrogation of the inner life would fit into the domestic prayers of the Austen household as night drew on.

This prayer, like the other two still in existence, was meant to close with the Lord’s Prayer. It is a family prayer that prepares the household to share in the family prayer.

 

AS WE seek to keep a hopeful and holy Lent, there is much to learn from Austen’s approach to prayer. In the midst of our capacity for sin and inattention, she invites us to interrogate the ordinary and quotidian for mercy and grace. To pray and to follow Christ can be a wonderfully domestic matter. It is the work of the household of God in the broadest sense, but it is also something we are invited to locate in that often most undervalued realm: the domestic.

In a world where paid work can take so much of our energies, and there is, perhaps, an over-valuing of public ministry, the domestic is often coded as second-best. In patriarchal societies, it has often been seen as the realm of women and “women’s work”. Yet Austen’s prayer — created for family devotion — reminds us of the dignity of home. The domestic may be claimed as much for men as women as a place of goodness and grace.

 

I CANNOT be alone in having been, from time to time, a seeker after spiritual highs and Charismatic enthusiasms. I do not doubt that there is a place for a wild speaking in tongues. There is joy and hope, however, in the determined and loving constancy of a quieter devotion. In her novels, we have become used to Austen’s staggeringly insightful wit and appreciation of human nature; her prayers reveal that, when we attend to the things of God, we are rewarded with reality.

We, too, would do well to pray: “Give us a thankful sense of the Blessings in which we live, of the many comforts of our lot; that we may not deserve to lose them by Discontent or Indifference. Be gracious to our Necessities, and guard us, and all we love, from Evil this night.” Thus we might walk deeper into this remarkable and astringent Lenten season.

 

Canon Rachel Mann is Area Dean of Bury and Rossendale, Assistant Curate of St Mary’s, Bury, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards

 

Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available

 

Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available

 

SAVE THE DATE

Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website

 

Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

Welcome to the Church Times

 

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)