Praying with George Herbert – Part 2

Lisa Cherrett continues to explore further images and themes in George Herbert's poem 'Prayer'. Lisa offers us some new prayer activities to help nurture our faith and spirituality.

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In this second article, Lisa Cherrett looks at further themes and images in the poem ‘Prayer’ by George Herbert and offers us some more 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.

‘The six-days world, transposing in an hour’

‘The six-days world’ is the whole of creation, from the light that God commanded at the very beginning in the book of Genesis to the teeming billions of living creatures, including ourselves. ‘Transposing’ is a musical term that means ‘changing key’. If you’re not musical, perhaps this image doesn’t help you much: you could imagine it instead as changing colour or simply changing mood.

In an hour of prayer, then, as we intercede for the world or for just one aspect of it, we can find that our mood changes, or we see the world in a different light. To return to Herbert’s musical metaphor, we feel that difficult circumstances seem more hopeful (a change from minor to major key), or our meditation reveals to us more clearly God’s grief over his suffering world (a change from major to minor).

Can you, in prayer, gather up the whole world to God and, in faith, see it change in some way? Prayer changes the key, the colour, the mood, of the world’s music.

Herbert’s poem continues, in the next line, ‘a kind of tune, which all things hear and fear’. Do we believe that our prayers are not only music to God’s ears but also sing a melody to the whole creation, the ‘six-days-world? Prayer tunes our spiritual ears to hear God, and, in ways we rarely imagine or experience, it tunes the ears of creation to know and honour God better.

Creation prayer

Which is your favourite ‘day’ of creation? Are you inspired to pray by any particular part of the created world? Perhaps sunrise, when darkness gives way once again to light, is a time when your thoughts turn naturally to God’s provision of strength for a new day. Being alone, watching the sea-tide coming in or going out, can be a great way of meditating on the majesty of God. Or, if you’re a city lover, walking through the crowded streets and looking at the faces of the people surrounding you might move you to compassion for all those who are made in the image of God but in whom that image has become unrecognisable.

Draw a circle on a large piece of paper or card and divide it into six segments. Write or draw in those segments something to represent the six ‘days’ of creation: light and darkness; sky; land, seas and plants; sun, moon and stars; sea creatures and birds; land creatures and human beings.

If you have a whole hour set aside for prayer, take ten minutes to focus on each part of the created world, praising God for it and asking him to ‘transpose’ it in some way – to bring new hope to it or change your attitude to it. Use your imagination, or perhaps think of something appropriate in the news today. For the sky, you might consider the effects of air pollution; for land creatures, you could pray for the work of animal rescue centres.

If you have only ten minutes to spare, choose one of the six segments to pray over. You could return to the others for ten minutes each on the following days.

As you conclude your prayer for each ‘day’, colour in the segment with changing shades of colour from pale to bright, or with different colours of the rainbow.

‘Exalted manna’

By the time we get to ‘exalted manna’ in the third stanza, there has been a definite change of key in Herbert’s thoughts. Manna was, of course, the food miraculously provided by God for the Israelites in the desert in Exodus 16:1-36. It came to them silently in the night, as they slept. They didn’t need to work or fight for this provision. All they had to do was to walk out in the morning light and gather it from the ground. They didn’t need to hoard it; indeed, they couldn’t, because it went mouldy by the next day. Manna was easy pickings, straight from the hand of God.

Sometimes, prayer is an effortless kind of sustenance – just there for the taking, fresh every morning. ‘Exalted’ means ‘lifted up’, as the priest lifts up the bread at Holy Communion in blessing and consecration. Similarly, we lift up our easy, effortless prayers, and they are a blessing to ourselves and other people.

Today, close your eyes and imagine yourself walking around or across a field, empty except for a scattering of white crumbs of bread. As you picture yourself bending down and picking up each crumb, light and fragile, send a light and easy prayer of thanks or a simple request to God. Don’t struggle; say the first thing that comes to mind. Each prayer need only be a few words.

Finish your prayer time by saying, ‘Lord, accept these prayers in the name of Jesus, the bread of life.’

‘The Milky Way’

After the exalted manna, George Herbert describes prayer as ‘heaven in ordinary’. In prayer, heaven meets us in the everyday places. It seems, though, that Herbert uses these homely images as a springboard for much more exotic ideas. At a time with no artificial lights, the Milky Way would have been more clearly visible to Herbert than it is to us, with our electric light pollution – and it would have been much more majestic.

Abraham was gazing up at the countless stars when God said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’ in Genesis 15:5. So, if prayer is the Milky Way, it’s something to strike awe and wonder into the heart. It’s the accumulation of many praises and petitions to God, answered by him with a promise of ‘offspring’ – the effects of our prayer that will live on when we are gone, just as the stars survive for so much longer than our mortal bodies do.

It is impossible for us to know the full effect of our prayers, whether we receive an obvious answer or whether we never know what might have happened. I often pray for TV personalities or strangers, with little hope of ever knowing how my prayers are answered. I’m sure many of us pray about situations of conflict worldwide – the current wars and tragedy of so much death and devastation, for everyone caught up in terrible floods or the constant plight of so many refugees – and of course we rarely hear how God might have worked in those situations. We can only pray in faith, not knowing yet still believing.

You could create your own Milky Way of prayer. Buy some sticky silver stars and dark blue paper or paint a long roll of paper in a dark colour. When you say a prayer whose outcome you may never know, stick a silver star on the dark background as a record of the ‘offspring’ God promises to us as we pray in faith.

‘The bird of paradise’

Here is a picture of prayer that, for most of George Herbert’s contemporaries, would have depended on pure imagination. We are privileged enough to be able to watch TV natural history programmes that bring fabulous creatures from across the globe before our eyes in all their glorious colours. Herbert’s first readers would have heard explorers’ stories of the bird of paradise and would have invested it with a magical quality.

We can imagine a bird of paradise with long sweeping tail feathers and iridescent colours, changing with the light, rather as a prism of glass throws out different colours when its facets are turned toward the light. This cannot be an image of prayer as a shopping list or a simple ‘thank you’ for everyday gifts. It must be a picture of prayer as something that takes us into the glory of heaven. I have to admit that my prayer life is nothing like this!

The bird of paradise is sometimes, though, equated with the phoenix, the mythical bird of red and gold that is reborn from its own ashes. As such, it’s often seen as a symbol of resurrection. As an image of prayer, then, it might represent the rebirth of the soul from the ashes of our sometimes, ruined lives. As we pray in times of distress, God may bring a shimmering new life from our suffering, spreading light in every direction.

Spend some time with the description of heaven in Revelation 4:1–8 or the new Jerusalem coming down to earth in Revelation 21:10—22.4. Leave your list of petitions to one side and let this scripture lead you into prayers of adoration, asking only that ‘your kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven’. Be caught up in the majesty and glory of God.

‘Something understood’

This final image of prayer in Herbert’s poetic banquet makes me smile, because so many of his ideas are far from easy to understand. Prayer itself, in fact, can be hard to understand. Sometimes the very idea of it seems to make no sense at all, and many of our cries to God are about circumstances that are hard to reconcile with our faith in a good and loving Lord.

However, there are moments in prayer when we do feel that our hearts and minds are settled and peaceful and we can simply rest in God’s greater knowledge of our lives. This experience can be like a shaft of sunlight breaking through the clouds. Perhaps Paul felt like this when he asked God three times to remove the thorn in his flesh that troubled him, and was told, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ in 2 Corinthians 12:7–9.

Or perhaps there is another meaning to this phrase – that as we pray, there is ‘something understood’ by God. Paul writes, ‘We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit’ in Romans 8:26–27.

Do you feel you’ve come to an understanding of some aspect of prayer that you didn’t have before reading this poem by George Herbert? Can you pick out one or two favourite images from the 27 in the poem – either images that we’ve looked at in these two articles or from among those we have not touched upon?

Try writing your own insights on prayer in the form of a poem or choose the one of Herbert’s images that intrigues you most and journal your thoughts about it.


George Herbert covers so many aspects of prayer, calling on so many different senses and abstract ideas, that his poem may seem overwhelming in its complexity. With ‘something understood’, it comes to rest after a long journey.

You could pray through your travels with the poem using the following words:

In the flavours of the church’s banquet,
both familiar and untried,
Lord, hear our prayer.

In the matching depths of heaven and earth,
where we ask for your will to be done,
Lord, hear our prayer.

In the sound and fury of siege and thunder,
when we cry out to you night and day,
Lord, hear our prayer.

In the piercing pain of guilt and fear,
when we need your mercy poured out upon us,
Lord, hear our prayer.

As we hold our fragmented world before you,
asking for transformation,
Lord, hear our prayer.

In our ordinary requests for daily bread,
our petitions whose answers we may never see,
and our expressions of adoration and wonder,
Lord, hear our prayer.

May we come to an understanding of your ways,
just as ours are fully understood by you.
In Jesus’ name.

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