|« Prev||Sermon XVI. Against Long Extempore Prayers.||Next »|
A Discourse against long and extempore Prayers:
IN BEHALF OF THE
LITURGY OF THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND.
UPON THE SAME TEXT.
Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.
I FORMERLY began a discourse upon these words, and observed in them these three things:
1st, That whosoever appears in the house of God, and particularly in the way of prayer, ought to reckon himself, in a more especial manner, placed in the sight and presence of God: and,
2dly, That the vast and infinite distance between God and him, ought to create in him all imaginable awe and reverence in such his addresses to God.
3dly and lastly, That this reverence required of him, is to consist in a serious preparation of his thoughts, and a sober government of his expressions: neither is his mouth to be rash, nor his heart to be hasty in uttering any thing before God.
These three things I shew, were evidently contained in the words, and did as evidently contain the 435whole sense of them. But I gathered them all into this one proposition; namely,
That premeditation of thought, and brevity of expression, are the great ingredients of that reverence that is required to a pious, acceptable, and devout prayer.
The first of these, which is premeditation of thought, I then fully treated of, and despatched; and shall now proceed to the other, which is a pertinent brevity of expression; therefore let thy words be few.
Concerning which we shall observe, first, in general, that to be able to express our minds briefly, and fully too, is absolutely the greatest perfection and commendation that speech is capable of; such a mutual communication of our thoughts being (as I may so speak) the next approach to intuition, and the nearest imitation of the converse of blessed spirits made perfect, that our condition in this world can possibly raise us to. Certainly the greatest and the wisest conceptions that ever issued from the mind of man, have been couched under, and delivered in, a few, close, home, and significant words.
But, to derive the credit of this way of speaking much higher, and from an example infinitely greater, than the greatest human wisdom, was it not authorized and ennobled by God himself in his making of the world? Was not the work of all the six days transacted in so many words? There was no circumlocution or amplification in the case; which makes the rhetorician Longinus, in his book of the Loftiness of Speech, so much admire the height and grandeur of Moses’s style in his first chapter of Genesis: Ὁ τῶν Ἰουδαίων θεσμοθέτης οὐχ ὁ τυχὼν ἀνήρ. “The lawgiver of 436the Jews,” says he, (meaning Moses,) “was no ordinary man,” ἐπειδὴ τὴν τοῦ Θεοῦ δύναμιν κατὰ τὴν ἀξίαν ἐγνώρισε κἀξέφηνεν· “because,” says he, “he set forth the divine power suitably to the majesty and greatness of it.” But how did he this? Why, εὐθὺς ἐν τῇ εἰσβολῇ γράψασ τῶν νόμων, Εἶπεν ὁ Θεὸς, φησὶ, τί; Γενέσθω φῶς, καὶ ἐγένετο· γενέσθω γῆ, καὶ ἐγένετο, “for that,” says he, “in the very entrance of his laws he gives us this short and pleasant account of the whole creation: God said, Let there be light, and there was light: Let there be an earth, a sea, and a firmament; and there was so.” So that all this high elogy and encomium, given by this heathen of Moses, sprang only from the majestic brevity of this one expression; an expression so suited to the greatness of a creator, and so expressive of his boundless, creative power, as a power infinitely above all control or possibility of finding the least obstacle or delay in achieving its mightiest and most stupendous works. Heaven and earth, and all the host of both, as it were, dropped from his mouth, and nature itself was but the product of a word; a word, not designed to express, but to constitute and give a being; and not so much the representation, as the cause, of what it signified.
This was God’s way of speaking in his first forming of the universe: and was it not so in the next grand instance of his power, his governing of it too? For are not the great instruments of government, his laws, drawn up and digested into a few sentences; the whole body of them containing but ten commandments, and some of those commandments not so many words? Nay, and have we not these also brought into yet a narrower compass by 437Him who best understood them? Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and thy neighbour as thyself: precepts no thing like the tedious, endless, confused trash of human laws; laws so numerous, that they not only exceed men’s practice, but also surpass their arithmetic; and so voluminous, that no mortal head, nor shoulders neither, must ever pretend themselves able to bear them. In God’s laws, the words are few, the sense vast and infinite. In human laws, you shall be sure to have words enough; but, for the most part, to discern the sense and reason of them, you had need read them with a microscope.
And thus having shewn how the Almighty utters himself when he speaks, and that upon the greatest occasions; let us now descend from heaven to earth, from God to man, and shew, that it is no presumption for us to conform our words, as well as our actions, to the supreme pattern, and, according to our poor measures, to imitate the wisdom that we adore. And for this, has it not been noted by the best observers and the ablest judges both of things and persons, that the wisdom of any people or nation has been most seen in the proverbs and short sayings commonly received amongst them? And what is a proverb, but the experience and observation of several ages, gathered and summed up into one expression? The scripture vouches Solomon for the wisest of men: and they are his Proverbs that prove him so. The seven wise men of Greece, so famous for their wisdom all the world over, acquired all that fame each of them by a single sentence, consisting of two or three words: and γνῶθι σεαυτὸν still lives and flourishes in the .mouths of all, while many vast volumes are 438extinct, and sunk into dust and utter oblivion. And then, for books; we shall generally find, that the most excellent, in any art or science, have been still the smallest and most compendious: and this not without ground; for it is an argument that the author was a master of what he wrote, and had a clear notion and a full comprehension of the subject before him. For the reason of things lies in a little compass, if the mind could at any time be so happy as to light upon it. Most of the writings and discourses in the world are but illustration and rhetoric, which signifies as much as nothing to a mind eager in pursuit after the causes and philosophical truth of things. It is the work of fancy to enlarge, but of judgment to shorten and contract; and therefore this must needs be as far above the other, as judgment is a greater and a nobler faculty than fancy or imagination. All philosophy is reduced to a few principles, and those principles comprised in a few propositions. And as the whole structure of speculation rests upon three or four axioms or maxims; so that of practice also bears upon a very small number of rules. And surely there was never yet any rule or maxim that filled a volume, or took up a week’s time to be got by heart. No, these are the apices rerum, the tops and sums, the very spirit and life of things extracted and abridged; just as all the lines drawn from the vastest circumference do at length meet and unite in the smallest of things, a point: and it is but a very little piece of wood, with which a true artist will measure all the timber in the world. The truth is, there could be no such thing as art or science, could not the mind of man gather the general natures of things out of the numberless heap of 439particulars, and then bind them up into such short aphorisms or propositions; that so they may be made portable to the memory, and thereby become ready and at hand for the judgment to apply and make use of, as there shall be occasion.
In fine, brevity and succinctness of speech is that, which, in philosophy or speculation, we call maxim, and first principle; in the counsels and resolves of practical wisdom, and the deep mysteries of religion, oracle; and lastly, in matters of wit, and the finenesses of imagination, epigram. All of them, severally and in their kinds, the greatest and the noblest things that the mind of man can shew the force and dexterity of its faculties in.
And now, if this be the highest excellency and perfection of speech in all other things, can we as sign any true, solid reason why it should not be so likewise in prayer? Nay, is there not rather the clearest reason imaginable why it should be much more so; since most of the forementioned things are but addresses to an human understanding, which may need as many words as may fill a volume, to make it understand the truth of one line? whereas prayer is an address to that eternal mind, which, as we have shewn before, such as rationally invocate pretend not to inform. Nevertheless, since the nature of man is such, that, while we are yet in the body, our reverence and worship of God must of necessity proceed in some analogy to the reverence that we shew to the grandees of this world, we will here see what the judgment of all wise men is concerning fewness of words, when we appear as suppliants before our earthly superiors; and we shall find, that they generally allow it to import these three things: 4401. Modesty; 2. Discretion; and 3dly, Height of respect to the person addressed to. And first, for modesty. Modesty is a kind of shame or bashfulness, proceeding from the sense a man has of his own defects, compared with the perfections of him whom he comes before. And that which is modesty towards men, is worship and devotion towards God. It is a virtue that makes a man unwilling to be seen, and fearful to be heard; and yet, for that very cause, never fails to make him both seen with favour, and heard with attention. It loves not many words, nor indeed needs them. For modesty, addressing to any one of a generous worth and honour, is sure to have that man’s honour for its advocate, and his generosity for its intercessor. And how then is it possible for such a virtue to run out into words? Loquacity storms the ear, but modesty takes the heart; that is troublesome, this gentle, but irresistible. Much speaking is always the effect of confidence; and confidence still presupposes, and springs from, the persuasion that a man has of his own worth: both of them certainly very unfit qualifications for a petitioner.
2dly, The second thing that naturally shews it self in paucity of words is, discretion; and particularly that prime and eminent part of it, that consists in a care of offending: which Solomon assures us, that in much speaking it is hardly possible for us to avoid; in Prov. x. 19. In the multitude of words, says he, there wanteth not sin. It requiring no ordinary skill for a man to make his tongue run by rule, and, at the same time, to give it both its lesson and its liberty too. For seldom or never is there much spoke, but something or other had better 441been not spoke; there being nothing that the mind of man is so apt to kindle and take distaste at, as at words: and therefore, whensoever any one comes to prefer a suit to another, no doubt the fewer of them the better; since, where so very little is said, it is sure to be either candidly accepted, or, which is next, easily excused: but at the same time to petition and to provoke too, is certainly very preposterous.
3dly, The third thing that brevity of speech commends itself by in all petitionary addresses is, a peculiar respect to the person addressed to: for who soever petitions his superior in such a manner, does, by his very so doing, confess him better able to understand, than he himself can be to express his own case. He owns him as a patron of a preventing judgment and goodness, and, upon that account, able, not only to answer, but also to anticipate his requests. For, according to the most natural interpretation of things, this is to ascribe to him a sagacity so quick and piercing, that it were presumption to inform; and a benignity so great, that it were needless to importune him. And can there be a greater and more winning deference to a superior, than to treat him under such a character? Or can any thing be imagined so naturally fit and efficacious, both to enforce the petition, and to endear the petitioner? A short petition to a great man is not only a suit to him for his favour, but also a panegyric upon his parts.
And thus I have given you the three commendatory qualifications of brevity of speech in our applications to the great ones of the world. Concerning which, as I shewed before, that it was impossible 442for us to form our addresses, even to God himself, but with some proportion and resemblance to those that we make to our fellow mortals in a condition much above us; so it is certain, that whatsoever the general judgment and consent of mankind al lows to be expressive and declarative of our honour to those, must (only with due allowance of the difference of the object) as really and properly declare and signify that honour and adoration that is due from us to the great God. And, consequently, what we have said for brevity of speech with respect to the former, ought equally to conclude for it with relation to him too.
But to argue more immediately and directly to the point before us, I shall now produce five arguments, enforcing brevity, and cashiering all prolixity of speech, with peculiar reference to our addresses to God.
1. And the first argument shall be taken from this consideration, That there is no reason allegeable for the use of length or prolixity of speech, that is at all applicable to prayer. For whosoever uses multiplicity of words, or length of discourse, must of necessity do it for one of these three purposes; either to inform, or persuade; or, lastly, to weary and overcome the person whom he directs his discourse to. But the very first foundation of what I had to say upon this subject was laid by me, in demonstrating, that prayer could not possibly prevail with God any of these three ways. For as much as, being omniscient, he could not be informed; and, being void of passion or affections, he could not be persuaded; and, lastly, being omnipotent, and infinitely great, he could not, by any importunity, be 443wearied or overcome. And if so, what use then can there be of rhetoric, harangue, or multitude of words in prayer? For, if they should be designed for information, must it not be infinitely sottish and unreasonable to go about to inform him, who can be ignorant of nothing? Or to persuade him, whose unchangeable nature makes it impossible for him to be moved or wrought upon? Or, lastly, by long and much speaking, to think to weary him out, whose infinite power all the strength of men and angels, and the whole world put together,, is not able to encounter or stand before? So that the truth is, by loquacity and prolixity of prayer, a man does really and indeed (whether he thinks so or no) rob God of the honour of those three great attributes, and neither treats him as a person omniscient, or unchangeable, or omnipotent: for, on the other side, all the usefulness of long speech, in human converse, is founded only upon the defects and imperfections of human nature. For he, whose knowledge is at best but limited, and whose intellect, both in apprehending and judging, proceeds by a small diminutive light, cannot but receive an additional light by the conceptions of another man, clearly and plainly expressed, and by such expression conveyed to his apprehension. And he again, whose nature subjects him to want and weakness, and consequently to hopes and fears, cannot but be moved this way or that way, according as objects suitable to those passions shall be dexterously represented and set before his imagination, by the arts of speaking; which is that that we call persuasion. And lastly, he whose soul and body receive their activity from, and perform all their functions by, the mediation 444of the spirits, which ebb and flow, consume, and are renewed again, cannot but find himself very uneasy upon any tedious, verbose application made to him; and that sometimes to such a degree, that, through mere fatigue, and even against judgment and interest both, a man shall surrender himself, as a conquered person, to the overbearing vehemence of such solicitations: for when they ply him so fast, and pour in upon him so thick, they cannot but wear and waste the spirits, as unequal to so pertinacious a charge; and this is properly to weary a man. But now all weariness, we know, presupposes weakness; and consequently, every long, importune, wearisome petition, is truly and properly a force upon him that is pursued with it; it is a following blow after blow upon the mind and affections, and may, for the time, pass for a real, though short persecution.
This is the state and condition of human nature; and prolixity or importunity of speech is still the great engine to attack it by, either in its blind or weak side: and I think I may venture to affirm, that it is seldom that any man is prevailed upon by words; but, upon a true and philosophical estimate of the whole matter, he is either deceived or wearied before he is so, and parts with the thing desired of him upon the very same terms that either a child parts with a jewel for an apple, or a man parts with his sword, when it is forceably wrested or took from him. And that he who obtains what he has been rhetorically or importunately begging for, goes away really a conqueror, and triumphantly carrying off the spoils of his neighbour’s understanding, or his will; baffling the former, or wearying the latter into a grant of his restless petitions.445
And now, if this be the case, when any one comes with a tedious, long-winded harangue to God, may not God properly answer him with those words in Psalm l. 21. Surely thou thinkest I am altogether such an one as thyself? And perhaps, upon a due and rational examination of all the follies and indecencies that men are apt to be guilty of in prayer, they will be all found resolvable into this one thing, as the true and sole cause of them; namely, That men, when they pray, take God to be such an one as themselves; and so treat him accordingly. The malignity and mischief of which gross mistake may reach farther than possibly at first they can well be aware of. For if it be idolatry to pray to God the Father, represented under the shape of a man, can it be at all better to pray to him, as represented under the weakness of a man? Nay, if the misrepresentation of the object makes the idolatry; certainly, by how much the worse and more scandalous the misrepresentation is, by so much the grosser and more in tolerable must be the idolatry. To confirm which, we may add this consideration, that Christ himself, even now in his glorified estate in heaven, wears the body, and consequently the shape, of a man, though he is far from any of his infirmities or imperfections: and therefore, no doubt, to represent God to ourselves under these latter, must needs be more absurd and irreligious, than to represent him under the former. But to one particular of the preceding discourse some may reply and object, that, if God’s omniscience, by rendering it impossible for him to be in formed, be a sufficient reason against prolixity, or length of prayer; it will follow, that it is equally a reason against the using any words at all in prayer, 446since the proper use of words is to inform the person whom we speak to; and consequently, where information is impossible, words must needs be useless and superfluous.
To which I answer, first by concession, That, if the sole use of words or speech were, to inform the person whom we speak to, the consequence would be firm and good, and equally conclude against the use of any words at all in prayer. But therefore, in the second place, I deny information to be the sole and adequate use of words or speech, or indeed any use of them at all, when either the person spoken to needs not to be informed, and withal is known not to need it, as sometimes it falls out with men; or, when he is uncapable of being informed, as it is always with God. But the proper use of words, whensoever we speak to God in prayer, is thereby to pay him honour and obedience. God having, by an express precept, enjoined us the use of words in prayer, commanding us in Psalm l. 15. and many other scriptures, to call upon him: and in Luke xi. 21. When we pray, to say, Our Father, &c. But no where has he commanded us to do this with prolixity, or multiplicity of words. And though it must be confessed, that we may sometimes answer this command of calling upon God, and saying, Our Father, &c. by mental or inward prayer; yet, since these words, in their first and most proper signification, import a vocal address, there is no doubt but the direct design of the command is to enjoin this also, wheresoever there is ability and power to perform it. So that we see here the necessity of vocal prayer, founded upon the authority of a divine precept; whereas, for long prolix prayer, no such precept can be produced; and 447consequently, the divine omniscience may be a sufficient reason against multiplicity of words in prayer, and yet conclude nothing simply or absolutely against the bare use of them. Nevertheless, that we may not seem to allege bare command, unseconded by reason, (which yet, in the divine commands, it is impossible to do,) there is this great reason for, and use of, words in prayer, without the least pretence of in forming the person whom we pray to; and that is, to acknowledge and own those wants before God, that we supplicate for a relief of. It being very proper and rational to own and acknowledge a thing, even to him who knew it before; forasmuch as this is so far from offering to communicate or make known to him the thing so acknowledged, that it rather presupposes in him an antecedent knowledge of it, and comes in only as a subsequent assent and subscription to the reality and truth of such a knowledge. For to acknowledge a thing, in the first sense of the word, does by no means signify a design of notifying that thing to another, but is truly and properly a man’s passing sentence upon himself and his own condition: there being no reason in the world for a man to expect that God should relieve and supply those wants that he himself will not own nor take notice of; any more than for a man to hope for a pardon of those sins that he cannot find in his heart to confess. And yet, I suppose, no man in his right senses does or can imagine, that God is informed or brought to the knowledge of those sins by y such confession.
And so much for the clearing of this objection; and, in the whole, for the first argument produced by us for brevity, and against prolixity of prayer; namely, 448That all the reasons that can be assigned for prolixity of speech in our converse with men cease, and become no reasons for it at all, when we are to speak or pray to God.
2dly, The second argument for paucity of words in prayer, shall be taken from the paucity of those things that are necessary to be prayed for. And surely, where few things are necessary, few words should be sufficient. For where the matter is not commensurate to the words, all speaking is but tautology; that being truly and really tautology, where the same thing is repeated, though under never so much variety of expression; as it is but the same man still, though he appears every day or every hour in a new and different suit of clothes.
The adequate subject of our prayers (I shewed at first) comprehended in it things of necessity and things of charity. As to the first of which, I know no thing absolutely necessary, but grace here, and glory hereafter. And for the other, we know what the Apostle says, 1 Tim. vi. 8. Having food and raiment, let us be therewith content. Nature is satisfied with a little, and grace with less. And now, if the matter of our prayers lies within so narrow a compass, why should the dress and outside of them spread and diffuse itself into so wide and disproportioned a largeness? by reason of which, our words will be forced to hang loose and light, without any matter to sup port them; much after the same rate that it is said to be in transubstantiation, where accidents are left in the lurch by their proper subject, that gives them the slip, and so leaves those poor slender beings to uphold and shift for themselves.
In brevity of speech, a man does not so much 449speak words, as things; things in their precise and naked truth, and stripped of their rhetorical mask and their fallacious gloss; and therefore in Athens they circumscribed the pleadings of their orators by a strict law, cutting off prologues and epilogues, and commanding them to an immediate representation of the case, by an impartial and succinct declaration of mere matter of fact. And this was, indeed, to speak things fit for a judge to hear, because it argued the pleader also a judge of what was fit for him to speak.
And now, why should not this be both decency and devotion too, when we come to plead for our poor souls before the great tribunal of heaven? It was the saying of Solomon, A word to the wise; and if so, certainly there can be no necessity of many words to Him who is wisdom itself. For can any man think, that God delights to hear him make speeches, and to shew his parts, (as the word is,) or to jumble a multitude of misapplied scripture-sentences together, interlarded with a frequent, nauseous repetition of “Ah Lord!” which some call exercising their gifts, but with a greater exercise of their hearers patience? Nay, does not he present his Maker, not only with a more decent, but also a more free and liberal oblation, who tenders him much in a little, and brings him his whole heart and soul wrapt up in three or four words, than he who, with full mouth and loud lungs, sends up whole volleys of articulate breath to the throne of grace? For neither in the esteem of God or man ought multitude of words to pass for any more. In the present case, no doubt, God accounts and accepts of the former, as infinitely a more valuable offering than the latter. 450As that subject pays his prince a much nobler and more acceptable tribute, who tenders him a purse of gold, than he who brings him a whole cart-load of farthings, in which there is weight without worth, and number without account.
3dly, The third argument for brevity, or contractedness of speech in prayer, shall be taken from the very nature and condition of the person who prays; which makes it impossible for him to keep up the same fervour and attention in a long prayer, that he may in a short. For as I first observed, that the mind of man cannot with the same force and vigour attend to several objects at the same time, so neither can it with the same force and earnestness exert itself upon one and the same object for any long time: great intention of mind spending the spirits too fast, to continue its first freshness and agility long. For while the soul is a retainer to the elements, and a sojourner in the body, it must be content to submit its own quickness and spirituality to the dulness of its vehicle, and to comply with the pace of its inferior companion. Just like a man shut up in a coach, who, while he is so, must be willing to go no faster than the motion of the coach will carry him. He who does all by the help of those subtile, refined parts of matter, called spirits, must not think to persevere at the same pitch of acting, while those principles of activity flag. No man begins and ends a long journey with the same pace.
But now, when prayer has lost its due fervour and attention, (which indeed are the very vitals of it,) it is but the carcase of a prayer, and consequently must needs be loathsome and offensive to God: nay, though the greatest part of it should be enlivened 451and carried on with an actual attention, yet, if that attention fails to enliven any one part of it, the whole is but a joining of the living and the dead together; for which conjunction the dead is not at all the better, but the living very much the worse. It is not length, nor copiousness of language, that is devotion, any more than bulk and bigness is valour, or flesh the measure of the spirit. A short sentence may be oftentimes a large and a mighty prayer. Devotion so managed being like water in a well, where you have fulness in a little compass; which surely is much nobler than the same carried out into many petit, creeping rivulets, with length and shallowness together. Let him who prays bestow all that strength, fervour, and attention, upon shortness and significance, that would otherwise run out and lose itself in length and luxuriancy of speech to no purpose. Let not his tongue outstrip his heart, nor presume to carry a message to the throne of grace, while that stays behind. Let him not think to sup port so hard and weighty a duty with a tired, languishing, and bejaded devotion: to avoid which, let a man contract his expression, where he cannot enlarge his affection; still remembering, that nothing can be more absurd in itself, nor more unacceptable to God, than for one engaged in the great work of prayer to hold on speaking, after he has left off praying, and to keep the lips at work, when the spirit can do no more.
4thly, The fourth argument for shortness or conciseness of speech in prayer shall be drawn from this, That it is the most natural and lively way of expressing the utmost agonies and outcries of the soul to God upon a quick, pungent sense, either of 452a pressing necessity, or an approaching calamity; which, we know, are generally the chief occasions of prayer, and the most effectual motives to bring men upon their knees, in a vigorous application of themselves to this great duty. A person ready to sink under his wants, has neither time nor heart to rhetoricate or make flourishes. No man begins a long grace, when he is ready to starve: such an one’s prayers are like the relief he needs, quick and sudden, short and immediate: he is like a man in torture upon the rack; whose pains are too acute to let his words be many, and whose desires of deliverance too impatient, to delay the things he begs for by the manner of his begging it.
It is a common saying, “If a man does not know how to pray, let him go to sea, and that will teach him.” And we have a notable instance of what kind of prayers men are taught in that school, even in the disciples themselves, when a storm arose, and the sea raged, and the ship was ready to be cast away, in the eighth of Matthew. In which case, we do not find that they fell presently to harangue it about seas and winds, and that dismal face of things that must needs appear all over the devouring element at such a time: all which, and the like, might no doubt have been very plentiful topics of eloquence to a man who should have looked upon these things from the shore, or discoursed of wrecks and tempests safe and warm in his parlour. But these poor wretches, who were now entering, as they thought, into the very jaws of death, struggling with the last efforts of nature upon the sense of a departing life, and consequently could neither speak nor think any thing low or ordinary in such a condition, presently rallied up, 453and discharged the whole concern of their desponding souls, in that short prayer of but three words, though much fuller and more forcible than one of three thousand, in the 25th verse of the forementioned chapter; Save us, Lord, or we perish. Death makes short work when it comes, and will teach him, who would prevent it, to make shorter. For surely no man who thinks himself a perishing can be at leisure to be eloquent, or judge it either sense or devotion to begin a long prayer, when, in all likelihood, he shall conclude his life before it.
5thly. The fifth and last argument that I shall produce for brevity of speech, or fewness of words in prayer, shall be taken from the examples which we find in scripture, of such as have been remark able for brevity, and of such as have been noted for prolixity of speech, in the discharge of this duty.
1. And first for brevity. To omit all those notable examples which the Old Testament affords us of it, and to confine ourselves only to the New, in which we are undoubtedly most concerned; was not this way of praying, not only warranted, but sanctified, and set above all that the wit of man could possibly except against it, by that infinitely exact form of prayer, prescribed by the greatest, the holiest, and the wisest man that ever lived, even Christ himself, the Son of God, and Saviour of the world? Was it not an instance both of the truest devotion, and the fullest and most comprehensive reason, that ever proceeded from the mouth of man? and yet, withal, the shortest and most succinct model that ever grasped all the needs and occasions of man kind, both spiritual and temporal, into so small a compass? Doubtless, had our Saviour thought fit 454to amplify or be prolix, He, in whom were hid all the treasures of wisdom, could not want matter; nor he who was himself the Word, want variety of the fittest to have expressed his mind by. But he chose rather to contract the whole concern of both worlds into a few lines, and to unite both heaven and earth in his prayer, as he had done before in his person. And indeed one was a kind of copy or representation of the other.
So then we see here brevity in the rule or pat tern; let us see it next in the practice; and, after that, in the success of prayer. And first, we have the practice, as well as the pattern of it, in our Saviour himself; and that in the most signal passage of his whole life, even his preparation for his approaching death. In which dolorous scene, when his whole soul was nothing but sorrow, (that great moving spring of invention and elocution,) and when nature was put to its last and utmost stretch, and so had no refuge or relief but in prayer; yet even then all this horror, agony, and distress of spirit, delivers itself but in two very short sentences, in Matt. xxvi. 39. O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt. And again, the second time, with the like brevity and the like words: O my Father, if this cup may not pass from me, except I drink it, thy will be done. And lastly, the third time also, he used the same short form again; and yet in all this he was (as we may say without a metaphor) even praying for life, so far as the great business he was then about, to wit, the redemption of the world, would suffer him to pray for it. All which prayers of our Saviour, and others of like 455brevity, are properly such as we call ejaculations; an elegant similitude from a dart or arrow, shot or thrown out; and such an one (we know) of a yard long, will fly farther, and strike deeper, than one of twenty.
And then, in the last place, for the success of such brief prayers, I shall give you but three instances of this; but they shall be of persons praying under the pressure of as great miseries as human nature could well be afflicted with. And the first shall be of the leper, Matt. viii. 2. or, as St. Luke describes him, a man full of leprosy, who came to our Saviour, and worshipped him; and, as St. Luke again has it more particularly, fell on his face before him, (which is the lowest and most devout of all postures of worship,) saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. This was all his prayer: and the answer to it was, that he was immediately cleansed. The next instance shall be of the poor blind man, in Luke xviii. 38. following our Saviour with this earnest prayer: Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy upon me. His whole prayer was no more: for it is said in the next verse, that he went on repeating it again and again: Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy upon me. And the answer he received was, that his eyes were opened, and his sight restored.
The third and last instance shall be of the publican, in the same chapter of St. Luke, praying under a lively sense of as great a leprosy and blindness of soul, as the other two could have of body: in the 13th verse, he smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. He spoke no more; though it is said in the 10th verse, that 456he went solemnly and purposely up to the temple to pray: the issue and success of which prayer was, that he went home justified, before one of those whom all the Jewish church revered as absolutely the highest and most heroic examples of piety, and most beloved favourites of Heaven, in the whole world. And now, if the force and virtue of these short prayers could rise so high as to cleanse a leper, to give sight to the blind, and to justify a publican; and if the worth of a prayer may at all be measured by the success of it, I suppose no prayers whatsoever can do more; and I never yet heard or read of any long prayer that did so much. Which brings on the other part of this our fifth and last argument, which was to be drawn from the examples of such as have been noted in scripture for prolixity or length of prayer. And of this there are only two mentioned, the heathens and the Pharisees. The first, the grand instance of idolatry; the other, of hypocrisy: but Christ forbids us the imitation of both; When ye pray, says our Saviour in the 6th of Matthew, be ye not like the heathens: but in what? Why in this, That they think they shall be heard for their much speaking; in the 7th verse. It is not the multitude that prevails in armies, and much less in words. And then for the Pharisees, whom our Saviour represents as the very vilest of men, and the greatest of cheats. We have them amusing the world with pretences of a more refined devotion, while their heart was all that time in their neighbour’s coffers. For does not our Saviour expressly tell us in Luke xx. and the two last verses, that the great tools, the hooks or engines, by which they compassed their worst, their wickedest, and most 457rapacious designs, were long prayers? prayers made only for a shew or colour; and that to the basest and most degenerous sort of villainy, even the robbing the spittal, and devouring the houses of poor, helpless, forlorn widows. Their devotion served all along but as an instrument to their avarice, as a factor or under-agent to their extortion. A practice, which, duly seen into, and stripped of its hypocpitical blinds, could not but look very odiously and ill-favouredly; and therefore in come their long robes, and their long prayers together, and cover all. And the truth is, neither the length of one nor of the other is ever found so useful, as when there is something more than ordinary that would not be seen. This was the gainful godliness of the Pharisees; and, I believe, upon good observation, you will hardly find any like the Pharisees for their long prayers, who are not also extremely like them for something else. And thus having given you five arguments for brevity, and against prolixity of prayer, let us now make this our other great rule, whereby to judge of the prayers of our church, and the prayers of those who dissent and divide from it. And,
First, for that excellent body of prayers contained in our liturgy, and both compiled and enjoined by public authority. Have we not here a great instance of brevity and fulness together, cast into several short significant collects, each containing a distinct, entire, and well-managed petition? the whole set of them being like a string of pearls, exceeding rich in conjunction; and therefore of no small price or value, even single and by themselves. Nothing could have been composed with greater judgment; every prayer being so short, that it is 458impossible it should weary; and withal so pertinent, that it is impossible it should cloy the devotion. And indeed so admirably fitted are they all to the common concerns of a Christian society, that when the rubric enjoins but the use of some of them, our worship is not imperfect; and when we use them all, there is none of them superfluous.
And the reason assigned by some learned men for the preference of many short prayers before a continued long one, is unanswerable; namely, that by the former there is a more frequently repeated mention made of the name, and some great attribute of God, as the encouraging ground of our praying to him; and withal, of the merits and mediation of Christ, as the only thing that can promise us success in what we pray for: every distinct petition beginning with the former, and ending with the latter: by thus annexing of which to each particular thing that we ask for, we do manifestly confess and declare, that we cannot expect to obtain any one thing at the hands of God, but with a particular renewed respect to the merits of a Mediator; and withal, remind the congregation of the same, by making it their part to renew a distinct Amen to every distinct petition.
Add to this the excellent contrivance of a great part of our liturgy, into alternate responses; by which means, the people are put to bear a consider able share in the whole service: which makes it al most impossible for them to be only idle hearers, or, which is worse, mere lookers on: as they are very often, and may be always, (if they can but keep their eyes open,) at the long tedious prayers of the non conformists. And this indeed is that which makes 459and denominates our liturgy truly and properly a book of common prayer. For I think I may truly avouch, (how strange soever it may seem at first,) tat there is no such .thing as common or joint prayer any where amongst the principal dissenters from the church of England: for in the Romish communion, the priest says over the appointed prayers only to himself; and the rest of the people, not hearing a word of what he says, repeat also their own particular prayers to themselves, and when they have done, go their way: not all at once, as neither do they come at once, but scatteringly, one after an other, according as they have finished their devotions. And then, for the nonconformists, their prayers being all extempore, it is, as we have shewn before, hardly possible for any, and utterly impossible for all, to join in them: for surely people cannot join in a prayer before they understand it; nor can it be imagined that all capacities should presently and immediately understand what they hear, when, possibly, Holder-forth himself understands not what he says. From all which we may venture to conclude, that that excellent thing, common prayer, which is the joint address of an whole congregation with united voice, as well as heart, sending up their devotions to Almighty God, is no where to be found in these kingdoms, but in that best and nearest copy of primitive Christian worship, the divine service, as it is performed according to the orders of our church.
As for those long prayers so frequently used by some before their sermons; the constitution and canons of our church are not at all responsible for them, having provided us better things, and with 460great wisdom appointed a form of prayer to be used by all before their sermons. But as for this way of praying, now generally in use, as it was first took up upon an humour of novelty and popularity, and by the same carried on till it had passed into a custom, and so put the rule of the church first out of use, and then out of countenance also; so, if it be rightly considered, it will, in the very nature of the thing itself, be found a very senseless and absurd practice. For can there be any sense or propriety in beginning a new, tedious prayer in the pulpit, just after the church has, for near an hour together, with great variety of offices, suitable to all the needs of the congregation, been praying for all that can possibly be fit for Christians to pray for? Nothing certainly can be more irrational. For which cause, amongst many more, that old sober form of bidding prayer, which, both against law and reason, has been justled out of the church by this upstart, puritanical encroachment, ought, with great reason, to be restored by authority; and both the use and users of it, by a strict and solemn reinforcement of the canon upon all, without exception, be rescued from that unjust scorn of the factious and ignorant, which the tyranny of the contrary usurping custom will other wise expose them to. For surely it can neither be decency nor order for our clergy to conform to the fanatics, as many in their prayers before sermon nowadays do.
And thus having accounted for the prayers of our church, according to the great rule prescribed in the text, Let thy words be few; let us now, according to the same, consider also the way of praying, so much used and applauded by such as have renounced 461the communion and liturgy of our church; and it is but reason that they should bring us some thing better, in the room of what they have so disdainfully cast off. But, on the contrary, are not all their prayers exactly after the heathenish and pharisaical copy? always notable for those two things, length and tautology? Two whole hours for one prayer, at a fast, used to be reckoned but a moderate dose; and that, for the most part, fraught with such irreverent, blasphemous expressions, that to repeat them would profane the place I am speaking in; and indeed they seldom “carried on the work of such a day,” (as their phrase was,) but they left the church in need of a new consecration. Add to this, the incoherence and confusion, the endless repetitions, and the unsufferable nonsense that never failed to hold out, even with their utmost prolixity; so that in all their long fasts, from first to last, from seven in the morning to seven in the evening, (which was their measure,) the pulpit was always the emptiest thing in the church: and I never knew such a fast kept by them, but their hearers had cause to begin a thanksgiving as soon as they had done. And the truth is, when I consider the mat ter of their prayers, so full of ramble and inconsequence, and in every respect so very like the language of a dream; and compare it with their carriage of themselves in prayer, with their eyes for the most part shut, and their arms stretched out in yawning posture, a man that should hear any of them pray, might, by a very pardonable error, be induced to think that he was all the time hearing one talking in his sleep: besides the strange virtue which 462their prayers had to procure sleep in others too. So that he who should be present at all their long cant, would shew a greater ability in watching, than ever they could pretend to in praying, if he could forbear sleeping, having so strong a provocation to it, and so fair an excuse for it. In a word, such were their prayers, both for matter and expression, that, could any one truly and exactly write them out, it would be the shrewdest and most effectual way of writing against them, that could possibly be thought of.
I should not have thus troubled either you or myself, by raking into the dirt and dunghill of these men’s devotions, upon the account of any thing either done or said by them in the late times of confusion; for as they have the king’s, so I wish them God’s pardon also, whom, I am sure, they have offended much more than they have both kings put together. But that which has provoked me thus to rip up and expose to you their nauseous and ridiculous way of addressing to God, even upon the most solemn occasions, is, that intolerably rude and unprovoked insolence and scurrility, with which they are every day reproaching and scoffing at our liturgy, and the users of it, and thereby alienating the minds of the people from it, to such a degree, that many thousands are drawn by them into a fatal schism; a schism, that, unrepented of, and continued in, will as infallibly ruin their souls, as theft, whoredom, murder, or any other of the most crying, damning sins whatsoever. But leaving this to the justice of the government, to which it belongs to protect us in our spiritual as well as in our temporal concerns, I shall only say this, that nothing can be more for the 463honour of our liturgy, than to find it despised only by those who have made themselves remarkable to the world for despising the Lord’s prayer as much.
In the mean time, for ourselves of the church of England, who, without pretending to any new lights, think it equally a duty and commendation to be wise, and to be devout only to sobriety, and who judge it no dishonour to God himself to be worshipped according to law and rule. If the directions of Solomon, the precept and example of our Saviour, and lastly, the piety and experience of those excellent men and martyrs, who first composed, and afterwards owned our liturgy with their dearest blood, may be looked upon as safe and sufficient guides to us in our public worship of God; then, upon the joint authority of all these, we may pronounce our liturgy the greatest treasure of rational devotion in the Christian world. And I know no prayer necessary, that is not in the liturgy, but one, which is this; That God would vouchsafe to continue the liturgy itself in use, honour, and veneration in this church for ever. And I doubt not but all wise, sober, and good Christians, will, with equal judgment and affection, give it their Amen.
Now to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, three Persons and one God 9 be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.
END OF VOL. I.
|« Prev||Sermon XVI. Against Long Extempore Prayers.||Next »|