I, who live by words, am wordless when I try my words in prayer. All language turns
To silence. Prayer will take my words and then Reveal their emptiness. The stilled voice learns To hold its peace, to listen with the heart To silence that is joy, is adoration. The self is shattered, all words torn apart In this strange patterned time of contemplation That, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me, And then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended. I leave, returned to language, for I see Through words, even when all words are ended. I, who live by words, am wordless when I turn me to the Word to pray. Amen.
– Madeleine L’Engle, The Weather of the Heart
Prayer can lead us through words to silence, beyond words to contemplation, and through contemplation to the Word of God. If you find yourself in silence when you pray, you have options. Stay awhile. Or keep going. God is working in the silence, and the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans (Romans 8:26-27).
I liked this little poem by L’Engle. I know what it is like to fall silent. I know what it is like to feel the insufficiency of words. I also know what it is like to be surprised by what I find in the deep quiet, a sense of being awestruck, an infilling of joy, and an experience of being delightfully “healed and mended.” I “try my words in prayer.” More importantly, though, I have been taught to find in words the capacity to “turn me to the Word.” That’s an evidence of grace, for which I am thankful.
“Trinity Sunday” was published in Herbert’s The Temple in 1633. Each morning I read the Bible, a psalm, the daily entry from Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and a few pages from one (or more) books that I’m slowly, presently working my way through. Herbert’s poetry is a recent selection. I read at least three of his poems each morning.
“Trinity Sunday” is a very short poem, but contains a vast survey of Christian doctrine, beginning with creation and concluding with eschatological, ultimate hope. Herbert brings to memory that the story of the Bible begins with God bringing order from chaos. In Genesis 2, God forms the first human being from the dust of the ground. In the final line of the poem, Herbert asks for the blessing of union with God. What began as mud now runs and rises and then finally rests with God. Humble origins, and a heavenly hope.
Between Herbert’s mention of first and last things, we encounter the doctrine of salvation. God is the redeemer, having justified Herbert through the blood of Jesus Christ. God is also the sanctifier, the one who sets the priest and poet apart, making him holy for a purpose: “to do good.”
God is then petitioned: first to purge, then to enrich. Herbert repents, asking God to do the cleansing work. He considers his sin a “heavy” thing. Sin, transgression, wrongdoing before a Holy God most certainly is. Yet God removes the weight. Herbert vows to “sin no more.” There is a turning. Only then does he asks God’s blessing, that his “heart, mouth, hands” (his whole person) be strengthened for God’s purposes and in accordance with the classical Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (charity is the traditional rendering; we’re more familiar today with love being mentioned here).
The poem begins and ends addressing the same subject: “Lord” and “thee.” “I” and “my” appear three times; “me” is used four. There is an interplay between Herbert’s “I” and God’s “Thou.” Formed from mud, burdened by sin, Herbert looks to God as Creator, Redeemer, Justifier, Sanctifier, and Sustainer. Herbert looks upon himself, confesses his insufficiencies and inadequacies and faults, and yet he offers himself as a servant, knowing that is the reason God has redeemed and now sanctifies him. He has been caught up and brought into God’s eternal story. He can only play his part with God’s grace, God’s help. The same is true for any who would call upon God today.
I have seen the last three lines of this poem quoted. But those lines become so much richer when they appear alongside and after the first six. To ask God’s help is all the more profound when considered under the full scope of God’s person and work, and to state one’s one weakness, burden, and sin simultaneously serves to humble and uplift. Apart from God, we are quite small and frail, very lost and exposed.
But with God we are united to the source of an unsurpassed and unequaled strength, a strength that works through frailty and weakness and woundedness to make manifest the beautiful gifts of faith, hope, and charity. We are known, and found, and protected, and sent. We are lifted and carried, welcomed and restored.
John Donne was an English clergyman and poet who lived from 1572 to 1631. I love his work, and I’ve been hanging on to this poem since Good Friday, when it was shared by my friend Matt Anderson. Here is a link to the poem.