Ronald Blythe finds happiness in birdsong, and a May morning.
THERE are moments when I need not ask for anything, everything being present. Such as listening to the dawn chorus on a May morning, and with the cold air entering the ancient window in thrilling, quiet power. And having gone to sleep with my nightingale in full voice just outside.
Some of the first Christians were worried by the glories of nature and went to unnatural lengths to block them out. On the radio, the Thought for the Day man, still a bit delirious from listening to birdsong and Messiaen, is describing exactly what I am thinking at this moment — that prayer is a kind of bliss. Surpris¬ingly, in the Gospels it is an art that has to be learnt, the Teacher and his pupils being young Jews accustomed to synagogue and Temple services.
But Matthew has Jesus telling them to pray on their own and to shut the door; and Mark has him hiding away in the countryside in order to pray. Luke has him being asked that astonishing thing, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” Thus his prayer, which became the founda¬tion of public worship, was origin¬ally intended for the solitary place. This particular spring day my morn¬ing prayer is being set to music by birdsong, as had the speaker’s on the radio.
George Herbert, as one would expect of a priest, puts public prayer first, although being unable to resist confessing the enchantments of pri¬vate prayer. The latter are fre¬quently quoted; the former rarely. But we would do well to read what he said; for it might improve our services. How I dislike the barked-out res¬ponses. Here is what Herbert said.
Though private prayer be a brave designe,
Yet publick hath more promises, more love:
And love’s a weight to hearts, to eies a signe.
We all are but cold suitours; let us move
Where it is warmest. Leave thy six and seven;
Pray with the most: for where most pray, is heaven.
But, although I have no proof of it, I am convinced that Herbert’s wildly happy and celebrated analysis of what prayer is to him personally comes from a private experience.
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The Milkie Way, the bird of Paradise.
The “ordinarie” was the public table in an inn — Suffolk farmers ate together at the “ordinary” of a pub on market-day when I was a boy. And “man well drest” was Herbert remembering his dandy days at Cambridge. What leaps his private prayer took!
The disciples were remembering how John the Baptist taught prayer when they asked Jesus to teach them. John was an outsider where public worship was concerned, and I like to imagine that, as with the Celtic church, his prayer language was a personal one which, when spoken in the open air in what I sense was a glorious voice, might have ac¬companied birdsong, and wind and river sounds.