By DONALD DeMARCO
George Herbert (1593-1633) is one of those rare human beings who combined both scholarship and artistry with personal sanctity. In his three years of ministry as a clergyman, he preached and prayed, visited the poor, consoled the sick, and sat by the bed of the dying — administering true pastoral care to the privileged and the plowman alike.
He rebuilt his church out of his own pocket. Unfortunately, consumption cut his life short. His reputation as a major poet rests solely on a single volume that was published shortly after his death by a friend to whom it had been left.
In his poem, Prayer (1), he makes the thought-provoking remark that prayer is “reversed thunder.” For many of us who are disappointed by God’s alleged silence, the word “thunder” seems to be quite an exaggeration. St. Augustine, however, a poet in his own right, would have taken delight in this expression. He once remarked that “God does not hear us as man hears.”
As he went on to explain, “Unless you shout with your lungs and chest and lips, a mere man does not hear; whereas to God your very thoughts shout.” Even our thoughts can be virtual thunder to God’s ears.
It is most comforting to think that God is so attentive to our thoughts that He receives them as if they were shouts. Alfred Lord Tennyson speaks of “Battering the gates of heaven with storms of prayer.” Nonetheless, “thunder” is a metaphor and not the only one that Herbert uses in the same poem. Prayer is also the “heart in pilgrimage,” “the soul’s blood,” and “Church-bells beyond the stars heard.” The word metaphor means “to reach beyond.” All prayer is metaphorical inasmuch as it reaches beyond ourselves as it wings its way to God.
The image of the church bell is particularly rich in meaning. It is the voice of God (vox Dei) summoning people to pray and at the same time a prayer in itself that resonates upward to Heaven. The church bell is an intermediary between God and man, combining in a single sound both God’s “thunder” and man’s own thunderous response.
Prayer is our answer to God speaking to us. Reading the Bible is God speaking to us; prayer is our speaking to God. The two are opposite ends of the same spectrum.
If we do not hear God’s voice as “thunder,” we may hear it as a persistent nagging voice. C.S. Lewis, in his insightful article, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” recounts an experience that continued to astonish him and caused him to think more deeply into the mysterious potentialities of prayer.
He got up one morning intending to travel to London and prepare for the trip by getting his hair cut. The morning’s mail, however, made it clear that the London trip was no longer needed. Therefore, he decided not to get his hair cut. But an unaccountable and persistent nagging began in his mind, almost like a voice saying, “Get it cut all the same. Go and get it cut.”
His “voice” finally won out over his practical judgment. The very moment he opened the door of the barber shop, the barber said to him, “Oh, I was praying you might come today.” The barber was a Christian who was experiencing many troubles. As C.S. Lewis notes, “If I had come a day or so later I should have been of no use to him.”
Such experiences cannot be explained by chance alone. We can also think of God as a kind of divine satellite who reflects the prayers of one person in the direction of another.
I was, some time ago, in a gift shop in Cape Cod looking for the right present for a lady who had invited my wife and me to visit her in Nova Scotia. I was attracted to a porcelain music box adorned with an elegant blue jay. It seemed to be just the right gift. Music had special significance for our hostess, blue was her favorite color, and the blue jay had an important connection in her life with Toronto’s baseball team.
I turned the key of the music box and listened to the song that emerged in its mechanical unwinding. It was True Love, the song that Bing Crosby sang to Grace Kelly in the motion picture High Society. A doubt crept across my mind. Perhaps this is too inappropriately romantic a gift to present to my friend. She might get the wrong impression. I decided to pray for a sign.
God’s response was swift. The store radio began playing none other than True Love. And if I had any lingering doubts, they were dispelled by a saleswoman who was cheerfully humming the song as she walked past me. As it turned out, the gift was well received and was, indeed, the perfect present. It also gave me a good story to relate.
God does speak to us. We must be eager to listen to Him. Radio signals are constantly coursing through the air. But none will be picked up if the radio is not turned on. We need to tune into God’s frequency. And God’s response arrives free of cost. On that encouraging note, Mark Twain once quipped that, “I do not know of a single foreign product that enters this country untaxed except the answer to prayer.”
In his book, Prayer, the distinguished theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar expresses God’s invitation to be united with Him by the use of three arresting metaphors: “It is like a rope-ladder thrown down to us in danger of drowning, so that we can climb into the ship; or, a carpet unrolled before us leading to the Father’s throne; a torch shining in the darkness of a silent and sullen world, in whose light we are no longer harassed by problems, but learn to live with them.”
Poetry is an important vehicle in the language of theology. Prayer is our response to God’s goodness and the initiatives He has made to enlist us in His friendship. Prayer reverses God’s “thunder” with a thunder of our own. And when thunder meets thunder, to continue this meteorological image, there is always illumination.
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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)