The Long Prayer
WHEN I cut the leaves of an Atlantic of a year or so ago — but I forget, one does not cut the Atlantic any more. (I wonder how many other readers of the beloved magazine reach instinctively for a paper-cutter when they sit down to the happy consideration of the last ‘yellow-back’; and then are disconcerted to find the familiar preliminaries to perusal entirely dispensed with.) When I opened this Atlantic, I turned eagerly to the alluring title, ‘The Seven Worst Sermons.’
The joys of a reader are manifold, but chief among them stands that of discovering some obscure grievance of his own suddenly in print. Unless, indeed, he had planned to write upon the subject himself; then the discovery has its own share of grievousness. Now I had never thought of writing about the Seven Worst Sermons, I had hardly realized that I held any strong convictions concerning them; but Mr. Smith’s title awoke in me an instant response, and I fell upon his paper. When I emerged, it was with a sigh. ‘There! that’s been said. How desirable! I hope all the clergymen in the country will see this Atlantic. But, after all, the long prayer is worse.’ Being roused to a knowledge of my own resentment in one line, I sprang to intelligence of a kindred sorrow which lies deeper still. An Episcopal rector, Mr. Smith does not understand how much more trying than the sermon the long prayer can be.
There are not seven worst long prayers. There is only one. Its conventional form is so well established that one never thinks of referring to it in the plural. But its combinations vary, and sometimes they seem to amount to seventy times seven offenses against reverence and humor.
In its typical presentment it is an elaborate and painstaking production, so earnestly conscientious that one admits himself cruel to criticize it. It is the work of research and reflection, of a good deal of time. The pastor who utters its careful phrases must first have made a very thorough mental canvass of his flock. That is admirable. A pastor should know the circumstances and needs of his people; but rather for his own sake than for that of their Maker.
‘O, Lord,’ I heard an earnest young man pray not long ago, ‘be also with thy servants who are not present in thy sanctuary. Perhaps they cannot come; perhaps they are detained by sickness; perhaps, O, Lord, their duty holds them at the bedside of some sufferer.’
That was a considerate explanation; but ‘perhaps’ it was not altogether necessary.
There is a great deal of etiquette about the long prayer, and that makes it an anxious performance. Certain subjects must be broached, in a certain order. General petitions come first — smooth sailing enough, for these waters are wide, and the most absent-minded mariner can hardly go astray. But when it comes to the shoals and reefs of the special requests at the end, there is danger of disaster. What if Mr. Brown’s fever should be forgotten, or old Mrs. Simpson’s broken hip, or the fact that the Slocums are on the sea, or the vague surmises of hidden and quite unmentionable trouble which lurks in the Hawkins family? The last Johnson baby, too, has arrived within the week and must be acknowledged. Moreover, there was a wedding last Tuesday, and the absent and presumably blissful bride and groom must be remembered.
Remembered: that is the term, and it is a significant one. Many pastors are absent-minded (the endearing quality seems to belong to the amiable class), and their wives must tremble for them during the latter half of the long prayer.
As for a ‘visiting’ minister in a strange pulpit — his case is pitiable. To be sure, his unfamiliarity with the parish furnishes him with a seemingly obvious excuse for all short-comings; but some deacon, or, more likely, deacon’s wife, is pretty certain to take him in hand in the little study adjoining the pulpit, three minutes before the Doxology.
‘I thought you ought to know that we have a sudden and serious case of paralysis in our congregation this week. There’s an epidemic of scarlet fever, too; but perhaps — And our Sunday-school superintendent has had half a million dollars left him; he was very poor, his wife took in sewing, so you see — But perhaps, after all, you might not think it best — At any rate, you won’t forget to remember our absent pastor and his family.’
One wonders respectfully if, under these confusing circumstances, the bewildered clergyman does not sometimes make notes on his cuffs, or at least on his sermon’s margin. Surely the act would give no offense to — well, to any one. But think how, with the best of memories, he must be put to it to feel his way safely among the unknown needs of this strange congregation. The deacon’s wife failed to tell him who was stricken with paralysis — a man, or a woman, or a child, an unattached individual, or one with a family. The Sunday-school-superintendent affair puzzles him sorely. One cannot, with any religious fitness, give thanks for a mere accretion of filthy lucre to a private person; but if the accretion relieved want and trouble, the situation is elevated. As for the scarlet fever, that requires delicate presentation. If spiritual matters did not skirt such a frequent and perilous edge between the sublime and the ridiculous, life would be a simpler thing.
It is interesting to follow the development of a long prayer especially if one be a member of a little community and understand the allusions. I confess that I have not seldom sat up suddenly in my pew at home, and looked at our minister, breathless. What was he going to say next? That sort of thing is exciting. So are the obviously particular references to which one has no clue, such as an allusion to an affliction that happened at half-past ten last night, and has not yet had time to become generally known. Episodes like the latter have power to stir a whole congregation and set people signaling one another all over the church. ‘Do you know what he meant?’ ‘No.’ ‘Dear me! perhaps —’ ‘But I saw her this morning.’ Only the most guilelessly disinterested pastor ever allows himself to produce such an effect on his congregation; it works havoc with the attention due to and desired by his sermon.
Perhaps the reader may wonder why I find fault with the long prayer, if it holds so much interest for me. But it does not always; the effect depends on my mood. And anyway, the interest is never one of real satisfaction.
There are places where one does not want to be amused, and church is first among them. I shock myself sadly when I rear myself upright during the long prayer in the manner which I have confessed; but how can I help it if the spirit of the performance does not hold me from such demonstration? I never think of lifting my eyes during the first prayer, which they call the Invocation, or during the short, earnest, heartfelt prayer which follows the sermon. The truth of the matter seems to me that the long prayer is not a prayer at all, but a sort of address or statement, made nominally to the one great bourn of all prayers, but really to the congregation. The Invocation wings its way straight to heaven, but the long prayer goes the round of the pews.
I have said that it offends against reverence and humor. Yes, even although, and precisely because, it sometimes quickens mirth. Humor is too fine a spirit not to know its place in the world, and to resent any offer of privilege where it does not belong. It really hurts the cause of humor to laugh in church. As for reverence — the good God must be very patient with us, if He sets the long prayer down only to the score of our stupidity.
The whole question of prayer is a difficult one. Of prayer as petition, that is; there can be no doubt of its dignity as a form of praise or a means of communion. If we believe that our needs are known, down to the obscurest necessity which we ourselves only half divine; if we are sure that our personal good is inevitably involved with the universal good which is slowly arriving, why, why, do we trouble deaf heaven with our bootless cries? Deaf? To be sure: since it sees the end from the beginning, and knows that end to be very good. The most majestic verse in the Bible, and the most comforting, is, ‘ Be still, and know that I am God.’
However, the question is quite as vexed as it is difficult; and people have resolute views. I would not offend them. I would only ask them to think of the matter fairly the next time they bow their heads in church and embark on the long prayer.