Notes on a Prayer
Last week I shared a famous prayer with you, with some thoughts on it. As I finished writing up Dag Hammarskjöld’s prayer, I realized there were many more prayers like that. Prayers prayed by others before us, so we don’t have to invent the wheel. Many of them, like scripture, can reflect our own lives. My favourite, and the one I want to share with you, is quite old. Published in 1633, The Altar by George Herbert has captured me from the moment I read it. Technically it is a poem, one I have referenced before. But since it is directed at God, for me the lines blur between poem and prayer. These words ricochet in my soul, with their aching and haunting beauty.
A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart and cemented with tears:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool has touched the same
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy power does cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy name:
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
Oh, let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.
George Herbert (1633)
It doesn’t take a lot of deep analysis to see that this poem is literally shaped like an altar, I guess to reinforce the theme. As if I needed reminding. It is only capitalized twice and implied many times over. Herbert offers up his own heart as an altar. And like the stones of the altar in Exodus (20:25) his heart has not been touched by anything but Gods own hand. Herbert seems very in touch with the biblical authors here, he is so adept at using visual language, and imagery. There are also so many layers to this, that reading it over and again sheds new light and brings new encouragement.
I have actually started to learn it by heart. It speaks to me of such devotion, such humility, and paradoxically also such confidence. I mean, can you imagine, in this day and age, anyone offering something broken to another, let alone to God? But Herbert knows that God “will not reject a broken and repentant heart.” Psalm 51:17
I know what its like to have my prayers strung together by tears. Rarely, though, have I had the courage to claim a hard heart; a broken one yes. But hard; that’s a lot harder to admit to, even to God. But when God meets you at that altar, any rock would melt, I’m sure. And yet, what kind of courage does it take to offer up your heart. What could be on the other side of offering that, that would make it even worth contemplating…Could you imagine sacrificing your heart, nay Yourself, upon that Altar?