Puritan prayers

A few days ago, Joe B. at WORLDmag.com Community (previously known as worldmagblog) posted a Puritan prayer that a number of us there found very meaningful and saved for our own future use. Since then he has posted another Puritan prayer each day, and I became curious about the source of these prayers.

I could have asked him, but it was quicker just to Google it, and I discovered that these prayers were not as obscure as I might have thought. I found quite a few pages that contain a number of these prayers, all taken from a compilation of Puritan prayers titled The Valley of Vision. I have seen few books at amazon.com with such high ratings (5 stars by nearly all reviewers, and even the reviews that rate it lower are very positive), and I promptly added it to my Wish List.

As I thought about blogging about these prayers, I couldn’t help wondering what would be the reaction from ModestyPress, my Radical Agnostic friend. What interest could he possibly find in a post about prayers that are all about the depths of personal sin and the glory of God? I know he does believe in right and wrong, but sees no need to link those concepts to a divine being, or to worry about displeasing such a being.

I have to admit that while some of the prayers strike a deep chord within me, sometimes with others I find myself reacting somewhat negatively. One prayer under the category Heart Corruptions goes on at length regarding the sinfulness found within oneself:

I confess my sin, my frequent sin, my wilful sin; all my powers of body and soul are defiled: a fountain of pollution is deep within my nature. There are chambers of foul images within my being; I have gone from one odious room to another, walked in a no-man’s-land of dangerous imaginations, pried into the secrets of my fallen nature.

I find myself wanting to hurry through this paragraph. All right already, I know I’m a sinner, but enough already. Is it normal or healthy to go on and on about it? Couldn’t those people think about something other than what terrible wretches they were? One prayer uses the word wretch in reference to self, another uses the word worm. Occasionally I feel wretched, but I have trouble thinking of myself as a worm.

LIkewise, I have trouble identifying with a sentiment such as this: “no hours pass away with so much pleasure as those spent in communion with Thee and with my heart.” I have sometimes had pleasure in a sense of communion with God, rather than praying simply because I am supposed to, but it has been a matter of minutes, never hours.

Then there is the matter of language. Unlike one reader at amazon.com, I don’t think I need a dictionary as a companion to this book (it does help to have a certain familiarity with the King James Bible). But phrases like “May these objects engross my chief solicitude!” do take some mental adaptability to engage their sense rather than being put off by their form.

Yet the more I read these prayers, the more I am drawn into them. Most of them (the ones readily available on web pages such as this one) do focus on sin, repentance, and grace, but there is also this prayer of thanks for the simple everyday gifts we often overlook:

I thank Thee for the temporal blessings of this worldthe refreshing air, the light of the sun, the food that renews strength, the raiment that clothes, the dwelling that shelters, the sleep that gives rest, the starry canopy of night, the summer breeze, the flowers’ sweetness, the music of flowing streams, the happy endearments of family, kindred, friends.

And as for the sorrow over sin – such sorrow is certainly justified when you think about the destructiveness of sin. Many people in our society equate the word sin with “arbitrary religious rules imposed by a church hierarchy to control people’s lives,” but that’s certainly not how the Puritans thought of it, or how I think of it.

Sin is doing what is morally wrong – or ethically wrong, for those whose understanding of the word moral is tainted by the same idea of “arbitrary religious rules” as sin. Without trying to get into any lists of what is sinful, it’s all the stuff we think and say and do that hurts ourselves and other people. (And by that I mean genuine hurt, not just making people feel bad when they should feel bad because they did something wrong and someone told them so.)

I should feel sorrow over doing what is destructive to myself and my relationships with other people. There would be something wrong with me if I didn’t. I should long tobe a better person, who does good instead of hurtful things. A Radical Agnostic will not understand my belief that it is through faith in God that I see the path to becoming that better person, but if I believe that God is the source of all life and all goodness, where else would goodness come except from Him?

There are times when the zeal of these prayers seems very foreign to me. But I guess the people who wrote them experienced that also, considering these words:

Lord, help me, for I am often lukewarm and chill; unbelief mars my confidence, sin makes me forget Thee. Let the weeds that grow in my soul be cut at their roots; grant me to know that I truly live only when I live to Thee, that all else is trifling. Thy presence alone can make me holy, devout, strong and happy. Abide in me, gracious God.

And to that I say, Amen.

3 Responses to Puritan prayers

  1. modestypress says:

    Pauline, thank you for thinking about me as you pursued your meditations and prayers. You are very courteous.

    None of us know where we came from (aside from the literal details of sperm and egg, which does not tell us very much). We all know that we will cease to be some day, at least in the literal sense that our physical body will stop moving.

    Except for people lacking empathy and self control [aka sociopaths/behavior disordered], which social scientists estimate to be in the range of 1-4% of human beings, most humans are reluctant to kill and generally act and speak in the way most of us regard as “ethical/moral” in restraint from harming others and caring in helping others. On occasion, for reasons unclear, something like epidemics or forest fires run through normally “civilized” human beings creating outbursts of horror such as wars and genocides. We may be about due for another big one right now.

    As the only animals (if such we are) that possess power of abstract thinking and generalization, we are the only animals able to say, “Hey, I will die someday in a world that seems not to have any external meaning or rules.”

    Religious belief is one of the answers we have come up with. Prayer and meditation seems to go along with this approach. As William James noticed in Varieties of Religious Belief, there seem to be two main “flavors” of religious belief. One fits in with Calvinism (which Puritanism is a variety of) which is very gloomy and easily falls into self-flagellation (at least spiritual). The other is very optimistic and sees God as very gentle and kind. Unitarianism falls into this school of thought.

    As for myself, I go along with Christopher Hitchens, who wrote (along with many other books) God is Not Great. One way of evaluating people is watching how well they live up to their own words. Hitchens right now is very close to death [esophageal cancer] and seems to be facing it with calm courage. I am reasonably healthy at the moment for someone aged 67, but we all seek role models…

    Again, thank you for your courtesy in referring to me, reading my comments and tolerating them even though they represent a very different “world view” than yours.

  2. Karen O says:

    I add my “amen” to yours, Pauline. And Hi Random! (Or rather, Hi ModestyPress!)

  3. Hi, I thought you might like to use this on your web site, or for yourself. A free prayer book by Matthew Henry called ‘A Method for Prayer’ 1710 edition, with added devotional prayers and Bible helps. You can use the audio files for the book if you like. http://www.mrmatthewhenry.com

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