Praying with George Herbert – Part 1

Lisa Cherrett explores 'Prayer' a poem by George Herbert (1593–1633), an English poet and priest who lived and ministered near Salisbury. Lisa guides us through the main themes and offers us some prayer activities to help nurture our faith and spirituality.

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In this first article, Lisa Cherrett looks at some of the key themes in the poem ‘Prayer’ by George Herbert and offers us some prayer activities to help nurture our faith and spirituality.


Prayer the Church’s banquet, angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
the Christian plummet, sounding heaven and earth;

Engine against the Almighty, sinner’s tower,
reversèd 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 dressed,
the Milky Way, the bird of paradise,

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
the land of spices, something understood.


This poem is composed entirely of short phrases that describe many different facets of prayer. It contains 27 images of which I shall focus closely on just a handful and leave the rest to one side (maybe for you to explore on your own).

My favourite or best-understood phrases will almost certainly be different from yours, but I hope we will find at least some common ground.

Read through the poem a couple of times and highlight the words that strike a chord with you – the phrases that best describe your own experiences of prayer and those that spark your imagination and encourage you to discover more.

The very first picture, ‘Prayer the Church’s banquet’ does a good job of summing up the whole poem. It is a banquet of nourishing ideas about prayer. A banquet in Herbert’s time would not have been a meal of several courses, following a prescribed formal pattern, one after the other. All types of food would have been presented on the table at once, buffet-style. If that makes you think of a church bring-and-share supper with soggy quiche and many cheesy Wotsits, think again! A banquet is a smorgasbord of tasty delights, from the familiar to the exotic – and that is exactly what George Herbert sets before us in this poem.

From the Bible we know of several famous banquets which are never merely mealtimes or celebrations. They contain messages about who is important in political or social contexts. Where a person sits and how much food and drink they are given indicates status such as in Genesis 43:31-34 with Joseph’s banquet for his brothers.

The magnificent banquet described in Esther 1 sets the stage for everything else that unfolds in the dramatic story of Esther’s and Mordecai’s faith, loyalty, and courage and Haman’s treachery. At this banquet, Artaxerxes, a powerful Persian king in a moment of irritation and drunkenness, establishes a law with far-reaching consequences to those it affects. Later in the story, during another banquet, Esther prepares for the king and Haman and she sets the trap on Haman that seals his fate.

Banquets are venues for political and social negotiations. An invitation to attend one, especially from a person of prominence, is a distinct honour. Refusal to attend when invited or being refused entrance carries a strong message such as in Matthew 22:8-14. Jesus challenges all the norms of banquet protocols and guest lists in the parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:12-24 when he invites all the outcasts, the disabled and poor. In this way, he models a very different type of feasting that welcomes everyone in God’s name.

With these images in mind, how many different types of prayer can you think of? Presented with Herbert’s banquet and what Scripture tells us, will you stick to familiar favourite foods, or will you take the chance to try a different flavour, perhaps a way of praying that belongs to a tradition you’re not a part of? Here is the church’s banquet laid out in front of you: don’t go hungry!

‘The Christian plummet, sounding heaven and earth’

This is a fascinating phrase, though it’s hard to understand. To take a sounding means to measure the depth of a body of water. It would be done by throwing a rope into the sea, weighted at one end with lead (the ‘plummet’) and marked at intervals of two or more fathoms. But neither heaven nor earth is a body of water, and we generally think of heaven in terms of height rather than depth. Doesn’t God say that he lives in ‘a high and holy place’ in Isaiah 57:15?

Yet the psalmist writes, ‘Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls’ in Psalm 42:7 and the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to say, ‘Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ in Matthew 6:10. There’s an equivalence here – a sense that heaven, where God dwells, and earth, which is our home, are matched in some way. The things we experience on earth are felt in the heart of God in heaven, and heaven’s ways can be replicated on earth.

In prayer, we can dive deeper, with God, into the difficulties we face on earth. Dennis Lennon, in his book Turning the Diamond: Exploring George Herbert’s images of prayer (SPCK, 2002), says that this is ‘a “getting-to-the-bottom-of-things” plummet’ and that ‘the real business of prayer [is] penetration into the heart and essence of things’ (p. 37). Have you ever prayed for God to reveal the root cause of a problem – to get the measure of it, to bring it to the surface? Then you have been using the prayer that ‘sounds’ earth, that gauges the depth. The good news is that there is a matching depth to be sounded in heaven. However deep the trouble or pain we are in, there are depths of grace and love in the heart of God to cover the pain and resolve the trouble.

‘Sounding’ prayer

Why not make a sounding rope to help you get the measure of a particular problem that is weighing on your mind? Perhaps you have a loved one in the grip of an addiction, or you are in a relationship with someone whom you find difficult to forgive.

Find a ball of string, some thick thread or a thin piece of rope and attach it to a large piece of paper or cardboard. Alternatively, you could just draw a measuring line. Then mark it off into sections. At the top, write down the aspects of the problem that are easily visible on the surface. Follow the line down, writing any underlying issues next to each section. Can you reach down to something that might be a root cause? The lowest depth might simply be a large question mark. If so, write next to it, ‘God knows’.

As you pray about this situation, both today and in the coming months, build your faith in the fact that, however deep our sorrows, there is a depth of grace and healing in heaven to match them. Let ‘deep call to deep’ as you ask God to meet the needs you present to him, at the most fundamental level possible.

Keep your sounding rope for as long as you need it. You could journal on the paper or cardboard around it, jotting down answers to prayer and any new understandings that God shows you as you continue to pray. Remember that ‘neither height nor depth … will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ says Paul in Romans 8:39.

‘Engine against the Almighty’

There are some violent images of prayer in the fifth and sixth lines of Herbert’s poem. The ‘engine against the Almighty’ is a picture of a siege engine, designed to propel heavy objects toward or over the fortified walls of a castle. It sounds unbiblical, even heretical. Is Almighty God a walled city, impregnable to anything except a violent assault? Where is the simplicity of Jesus’ words, ‘Ask and it will be given to you’ in Luke 11:9?

There may be a clue in the meaning of ‘Ask’ in this verse: it means ‘Keep on asking’. Of course, God is the generous Father who longs to answer our prayers, but our actual experience is that prayer sometimes feels like battering down the walls of God’s resistance. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. There is more than one place in the Bible where we find people asking persistently and getting an answer. Think of Abraham bargaining with God for mercy on Sodom and Gomorrah, beating him down from ‘fifty righteous people in the city’ to ‘only ten’ in Genesis 18:23–32. Some years later, Jacob physically wrestled with God, finally insisting, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’ in Genesis 32:26. Then there is Jesus’ parable of the widow and the judge, with the conclusion, ‘And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?’ in Luke 18:7.

If the ‘engine against the Almighty’ is persistent prayer, perhaps ‘reversèd thunder’ is loud, angry prayer. Thunder and lightning are traditionally imagined to be signs of God’s anger at sin and the way it destroys human happiness and well-being. Sometimes, we too get angry about injustice or cruelty that we witness in the world, and we need to express that anger back to God. We justifiably turn thunder back to God, asking him to act on behalf of those who are cruelly or unjustly treated.

When was the last time you dared to fire off a thunderous prayer? Have you ever turned a siege engine on to God in prayer? What happened? Write or draw your feelings about these images.

‘Christ-side-piercing spear’

This is yet another violent image of prayer, perhaps even more shocking and unpleasant than the two we’ve already considered. The spear thrust into Jesus’ side on the cross was the last injury his body received, and, it might seem, an unnecessary one. We’re told that blood and water flowed from the wound, proving that Jesus was really dead in John 19:34.

None of us would wish to imagine that we ourselves were the centurion who carried out this act. How can it be a picture of prayer? I think, to understand it, we need to focus on what that flow of blood and water represents – the forgiveness and healing poured out on us as the result of Jesus’ self-giving death on the cross. Just as the spear thrust released this flow, perhaps our prayers in some way ‘activate’ God’s mercy, compassion and forgiveness, bringing it raining down on our heads and the heads of the people we pray for.

Take a few minutes to meditate on these words from Isaiah 53:5:

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

If you feel guilty or sick inside, prayer may be for you the Christ-side-piercing spear that releases the gift of forgiveness and healing. Or perhaps you have a friend or family member who needs to know peace of mind and freedom from guilt. Your prayers of intercession could be the spear that releases God’s grace for that person.

In prayer, bring yourself or your loved one to Jesus and pray for the flow of his forgiveness and peace into the places that need them.

Lisa Cherrett is Editorial Project Manager at Bible Society, a poet and published writer.