A sermon preached by Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor, St Paul's Cathedral
Read in service and on service sheet of the congregation:
Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
Not long ago we all came through a door and stepped into this place. What have we walked into? Is this another temple of a Google world, a place we arrive to get more information, another echo chamber of opinions on tap? A place of fact finding, certainty building, a place where you can be proud to be right or rest in comforting ideas?
Or, have you not walked into a fact-finding mission but, instead, into a poem? Is this a place where truth looks different? Where truth is not information but a formation, a shaping, a slow and patient constructing of the self or the soul and of the worlds these create? Evidence would suggest, yes, we are on poetic ground. Poems everywhere. We have sung them and called them psalms and hymns. We have heard them in scripture, love allegories, metaphors stretching everywhere, resonances bouncing off the stone, words at the gym trying to do new things for the sake of mystery, the mystery within us, around us, beyond us. We’ve walked into a poem and in it we discover loves and losses, reverence and rebellions, devotion and derelictions, the human and the sacred. Michael Longley was famously asked where his poems came from. He said that if he knew where poems came from he’d go and live there. Here, we’ve started that journey.
When the local poet George Herbert many years ago walked from Bemerton and into this place he reflected what you do when you walk into a poem such as this and reflected that it is something we do in many different ways. We call it prayer - the commitment we make to keep in relationship with God. To explore this he of course turned to poetry. You heard it and have it in front of you. It is a poem made up of images to express and explore how prayer might be described. It is a banquet, so not primarily something Christians do as an expression, but something we receive, a nourishment. It is something timeless, angels age. The breath that was given to us returns to its source as a homecoming. The soul develops its melody in paraphrase, expansion. The heart finds itself on a pilgrimage. It is an engine, a battering ram, pushing at what feel like God’s walls, it is a tower we build out of our failures. The thunder of the gods is reversed, as we throw our lightnings to heaven, and like the side of Christ grace pours out on us. The six days of our labour in one hour of prayer can be transposed, rewritten in a different key, a kind of tune, a kinder tune. Prayer has a suppleness and peace, the bread of heaven feeds but makes us more hungry for God. Through the eyes of prayer heaven lives in the everyday, in ordinary, what was often the public table of an inn. Prayer is the way we dress our soul to meet the one who loves us more than the worst thing we have ever done. It is a milkie way that lights the darkness, a bird of Paradise who were thought to be born without legs and therefore only soar on the fresh currents. The bells ring, awakening us from a snoring life. The blood is us runs freer as the soul’s life force. Even the air is sweeter, spiced, like incense that drifts upward. In all these images for our relationship with God, something is understood, something for which we as yet have no words and yet which feels like a return, a beauty. We understand, that is stand under, reaching to a God who is not the object of our knowledge but the cause of our wonder. Only poetry perhaps can begin to capture something of the poetry of prayer, of faith, of God.
I want to end, though, with another poem. It is one written by a British Muslim in response to the Herbert poem. This too is called Prayer. The poet is Zaffar Kunial.
First heard words, delivered to this right ear
Allah hu Akbar – God is great – by my father
in the Queen Elizabeth maternity ward.
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
says Herbert, is prayer. If I continued
his lines from there, from birth – a break Herbert
chimes with heav’n and earth – I’d keep in thought
my mum on a Hereford hospital bed
and say what prayer couldn’t end. I’d say
I made an animal noise, hurled language’s hurt
at midday, when word had come. Cancer. Now so spread
by midnight her rings were off.
I stayed on. At her bed.
Earlier, time and rhythm flatlining, I whispered
Thank you I love you thank you
mouth at her ear.
She stared on, ahead. I won’t know if she heard.
Here we feel the shadows of prayer, the difficulties, the pain of loss and absence that can leave us angry or simply at a loss. This place, the poetry of this place, the realities of faith, of reality of God, all have has these in their lines too and yet as the poet still picks up the pen knowing the impeded stream is the one that can sing most, so prayer, in a greater silence or in screams at the clouds, still tries to say thank you, I love you, thank you. Somehow. Something. Even when not understood.
We have walked into this place, a clearing in a dense forest life, a place for our breath to return to its source, a place where we get a glimpse, a hint, a guess that God is in this world as poetry is in the poem.