Read: Luke 18:1-8
This widow keeps bothering me. (v. 5)
Think Middle Ages. Think warfare, and a walled city, and besiegers attacking its fortifications with catapults and scaling ladders and battering rams. These are what Herbert means by the word “engine”—siege engines, constructed by the army’s engineers.
But what sort of prayer is this? “Engine against the Almighty”—attacking God, as if he were an enemy?
Jesus’ parable about the widow who was determined to get justice for herself does say exactly that. He describes her besieging the offices of the “unrighteous judge” day after day, while the clerks whisper to one another, “Here comes that dreadful woman yet again!” It is of course one of the “how much more” parables. If a judge who is corrupt will do what’s right out of sheer exasperation, how much more may we expect from a loving God? So we should come to prayer with the determination that we would use if he really were an enemy with whom we were at war. “We threaten God in prayer,” said Herbert’s contemporary John Donne, in one of his sermons. “Prayer hath the nature of violence . . . we besiege God, and God is glad to be straitened by us in that siege.” He was one of the greatest preachers of the age, and we may hope that his congregation at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was duly fired to practice what it had heard him preach.
Here is the poem in its entirety:
BY GEORGE HERBERT
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 heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed 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 drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood.
The land of spices; something understood.
Father, I know you’ll do the right thing, but I shall keep on asking for it all the same!
Author: Michael Wilcock