A Prayer for Today
"For a competent living" by Thomas Becon (1558)
Although I doubt not of thy fatherly provision for this my poor and needy life, yet, forasmuch as thou hast both commanded and taught me, by thy dear Son, to pray unto thee for things necessary for this my life, I am bold at this present time to come unto thy divine Majesty, most humbly beseeching thee that, as thou hast given me life, so thou wilt give me meat and drink to sustain the same; again, as thou hast given me a body, so thou wilt give me clothes to cover it, that I having sufficient for my living, may the more freely and with the quieter mind apply myself unto thy service and honour. Amen.
Thomas Becon, born in 1511, was a Protestant clergyman and reformer, originally from Norfolk. He lived through the turbulent reigns of four Tudor monarchs and was persecuted for his Protestantism under both Henry VIII and Queen Mary. However, under Edward VI he was Chaplain to the Lord Protector and contributed to Thomas Cranmer’s book of homilies that accompanied the Book of Common Prayer. Later he became Chaplain to Archbishop Cranmer and published over fifty tracts exhorting Christians of his day to pursue godliness in the rhythms of their daily routines.
This prayer comes from Becon’s book ‘The Pomander of Prayer’ and unless we are familiar with ‘Prayer Book English’ it may take a little unravelling at first. He begins with confidence in God’s provision for us but also recognising that we are still called to pray for those things necessary for ordinary life. Again Becon expresses his confidence that because God has given us life, he will also give us what we need to sustain life; because he has given us a body, he will also give us the clothes we need for it.
The implication is that we might continue the list to cover all that we need ‘sufficient for my living’, and at the same time recognise all those things that are not really necessary at all, despite our attachment to them.
And the point of praying for these daily necessities? That in gaining them we may have the free ability and peace of mind to give ourselves daily to God’s ‘service and honour’. Becon points us towards a daily confidence in God’s care and a letting go of all that complicates and diverts us from simple Godly life in response. It is a prayer for simplicity and holiness, and it may be that we need it all the more in today’s complex and deceitful world than did the good people of puritan England.
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
This short and evocative prayer has been esteemed and used by Christians for many centuries. It is anchored in the traditions of the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches but recently has also found it’s place in the broad spirituality of Western churches. It is often repeated continually as part of a time of personal prayer, settling the believer peacefully and leading to a silent being with God and ‘prayer of the heart’. However, it can also be used at times of crisis and when other adequate words simply fail to come.
The Jesus Prayer probably originated in the Egyptian desert, which was settled by the monastic Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers in the 5th century. The Prayer draws on three Bible texts: the hymn to Christ found in chapter 2 of Paul’s letter to the Philippians (verse 11: "Jesus Christ is Lord"), the angel’s message to Mary in Luke 1 (verse 35: "Son of God"), and the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican of Luke 18:9–14, in which the Publican prays in humility (verse 13: "God be merciful to me a sinner").
The practice of repeatedly saying the Prayer is founded on the belief that God’s name is the place of his presence. For the Orthodox, the power of the Jesus Prayer comes not only from its content, but from the very invocation of Jesus name. The aim of the Christian practicing it is to become holy and find union with God by remaining in his presence continually.
We notice first that the Jesus Prayer is addressed to God as we see and understand him in the person of Jesus. By immediately making him ‘Lord’, I turn away from the pride that marks so much of human dialogue. Then, by acknowledging his status as Son of God, I ask for access to all the benefits that he has won for us through his self-emptying divinity. Finally, acknowledging myself as "a sinner" leads to a state of humbleness and repentance, and dependence on God for our deliverance; ‘have mercy on me.’
The Prayer itself claims no secrets or hidden messages but it simply demands setting the mind apart from rational activities and ignoring the physical senses as we draw nearer to God’s own presence. It is a way of ‘praying without ceasing’ that is open to every believer however simple or learned, however ‘spiritual’ or struggling we feel.
Phos Hilaron or 'Hail Gladdening Light'.
O joyful light,
from the pure glory of the eternal heavenly Father,
O holy, blessed Jesus Christ.
As we come to the setting of the sun
and see the evening light,
we give thanks and praise to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit of God.
Worthy are you at all times
to be sung with holy voices,
O Son of God, O giver of life,
and to be glorified through all creation.
- or -
Hail, gladdening Light, of his pure glory poured,
Who is the immortal Father, heavenly, blest,
Holiest of holies, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Now we are come to the sun's hour of rest,
The lights of evening round us shine,
We hymn the Father, Son and Holy Spirit divine.
Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung
With undefiled tongue,
Son of our God, giver of life, alone:
Therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, they own.
(translated by John Keble, 1834)
Phos Hilaron, or the Song of the Light, is an ancient Christian prayer-hymn originally in the common Greek of the time, and dating from the 3rd century or even earlier. It is the earliest known Christian hymn recorded outside of the Bible that is still in use today. The form that most of us are familiar with is ‘Hail Gladdening Light’, a translation into English verse by John Keble, one of the leaders of the Nineteenth Century Oxford Movement, and later set to music by Charles Wood in 1912.
St. Basil the Great, who died in 379 AD, spoke of the singing of the Phos Hilaron as a cherished ancient tradition of the church even in his day. The original melody, as used by the Greek Orthodox Church in the original text, is considered particularly taxing on the voice as it spans almost two octaves. This prayer-hymn was sung at the lighting of the lamps at evening time, and one tradition links it to the flame that was continually kept burning in the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem in the early centuries of Christianity.
The prayer is addressed to Jesus Christ as the Light of the World, and who reveals to us the glory of God the Trinity. It picks up our sense of wonder at the beauty of creation, especially at this time of transition when daytime fades and night time grows around us, a time when our sense of being between worlds is heightened and we are perhaps more attuned to God’s Spirit.
In these earlier times, before electricity and 24 hour a day entertainment, people’s lives were ordered by the cycle of light and darkness - day and night, summer and winter. It was natural to mark out the rhythm of the hours and seasons with prayers and rituals that were also reminders of our link to the natural and heavenly realms, and our dependence on them.
In many ways we have lost this sense of rhythm in our lives today, and we have to work hard with a clear intention, to recover something of it. Prayers such as Phos Hilaron can help us reconnect and slow down to a more natural pace of life lived in God’s presence. We might consider keeping our autumn house lights off until a specific time each day when we can pause to remember Jesus as our own 'gladdening Light' and take a moment to pray with a simple candle.
The Serenity Prayer: taking the world as it is.
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time,
accepting hardship as a pathway to peace.
Taking, as Jesus did,
this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it.
Trusting that You will make all things right,
if I surrender to Your will.
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
and supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
Most of us are familiar with this famous prayer, but only with an adapted version of the first verse. The original was written by Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian and political commentator, early in the last Century. Neibuhr argued for the ideas of ‘Christian Realism’ and has been cited as an important influence by many prominent American politicians, including President Barrack Obama.
The Serenity Prayer expresses that same Christian realism, ‘taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is.’ Niebuhr wants to abandon any fanciful notions that the world is a softer place than it really is; the reality is that the world is sinful and life has much hardship.
That is not where he stops however; some things should and can be changed. Neibuhr’s prayerful requests make clear that the power and ability to change the world come from God, rather than our own resources; they are gifts of his grace, and so our starting point is that understanding from God about where our efforts should be channelled.
There is peace to be found in life as well as activity though; there is a good and Godly acceptance of what cannot be changed, the hardship we experience and the fact that, in this world as least, justice and pure happiness are always elusive.
It is our trust in God’s good purposes for us and for the world that can bring this peace, and with it a hope for eternity.