Angela Carter said, “Comedy is a tragedy that happens to other people.” That truism is wonderfully illustrated by the story of Aeschylus (525-456 BC). Aeschylus was a famous Greek playwright who wrote more than 70 plays, but tragically, only 7 have survived. He is known in dramatic circles as the “father of tragedy.” But tragically, that is not why I remember him. I remember him because he died a tragic death that may also be perceived as rather funny. Pliny the Elder was also a famous author (although he was Roman and not Greek). Pliny wrote an encyclopedia-like work of scientific discoveries that we now know as pure bunk, but contained such famous quotes as “Fortune favors the brave,” and “The only certainty is that nothing is certain,” and “Home is where the heart is.” It also contained the sad tale of the death of Aeschylus. The tale recounts how the day before his death, Aeschylus received an oracle telling him that he would die on the morrow by a house falling down upon him. This dire warning convinced Aeschylus to do the only rational thing. He refused to step foot in any building for the whole day. That afternoon, however, as he was standing outside in the sun, an eagle was flying overhead and mistook Aeschylus’ bald head for a rock (a tragedy in both the ancient world and in contemporary society). Unfortunately for Aeschylus, this eagle was looking for just such a rock for it was carrying a tortoise in its talons and was looking for a way to break it open. Alas, poor Aeschylus, I knew him well. The eagle dropped the tortoise from such a height that, in the ensuing crash, both tortoise and Aeschylus were killed. How would you like to explain to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates that you died by having a nearsighted eagle drop a fatal turtle on your head even after you were warned that a house (in this case, a tortoise’s shell) would be the cause of your demise? As I said, “Comedy is a tragedy that happens to other people.” (By the way, Pliny the Elder also chided his contemporaries for refusing to cite their sources in recounting a story, and I certainly don’t want to incur the wrath of Pliny the Elder or even of Pliny the Younger. I read this story in Leland Gregory’s Stupid Ancient History).
Let’s face it, the world we live in is a scary place, even if our world doesn’t contain kamikaze turtles falling from the sky. We need protection, and that is why many prayers in the Book of Common Prayer seek God’s grace for trying times. Interestingly, when the BCP was first written, many of those trying times happened at night. In fact, there are many prayers that were to be said at sundown because it was felt that, as night fell, danger increased. For instance, here is an evening prayer for “Aid against Perils” (for effect, I’ll keep the formal language in this prayer):
Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord;
and by thy great mercy
defend us from all perils and dangers of this night;
for the love of thy only Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Why was the night so scary? Because things go bump in the night! Alan Jacobs writes: “With only limited forms of lighting, people found the darkness continually befuddling; friend could not be distinguished from foe, nor animate objects from inanimate ones. The moon was thought to bring both madness and disease, and the night air was perceived as unhealthy, even poisonous. ‘Terrors of the Night’ as Thomas Nashe called them in a 1594 pamphlet, multiplied relentlessly in the mind.” As a result, many people came to morning prayers, thanking God for his deliverance that brought them safely to another day. You can see this in this prayer of thanksgiving and dedication:
O Lord, our heavenly Father,
almighty and everlasting God,
who has safely brought us to the beginning of this day:
Defend us in the same with your mighty power;
and grant that this day we fall into no sin,
neither run into any kind of danger;
but that we, being ordered by your governance,
may do always what is righteous in your sight;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This is a great prayer because it is so honest. We are thankful that God got us through yesterday, but today offers a whole host of new problems, temptations and dangers; and we are overwhelmed with fear. It’s enough to make us want to stay in bed all day or, at least, stay indoors (contrary to Aeschylus’ advice). But the Prayer Book gives us another way to deal with our fears. It calls us to pray.
Now, you may not feel this is the most powerful of all prayers and certainly not worthy of taking with you as one of your top-ten-spiritual-companions-in-life prayers, and I would agree; but there is something about this prayer that gives us insight into how the Prayer Book shapes its prayers and, in so doing, shapes us as we pray. Each of the “collects” has a particular sequence that is equally moving, theologically poignant and important (Note: a “collect” is a short prayer that has a particular structure that asks God to work in a particular area of our lives. The term “collect” may come from the idea that this prayer request was so common to all God’s people that it could, without question, be collected together with other such prayers to form a prayer book for everyone. In pronouncing the word, the accent falls on the first syllable). Here is the five-part structure:
- We cry out to God (usually, focusing on one of his attributes or acts)
- We ask God for help in some area of our lives (usually, there is only one request; and it is given in a very abbreviated form)
- We express the reason or goal of the request (“in order that. . . .”)
- We state the basis for our request
- We close with the “Amen”
Now, with all that background, here’s my selection for our sixth prayer to take with us wherever we go in life. It is from the Fifth Sunday in Lent:
you alone can bring into order
the unruly wills and affections of sinners:
Grant your people grace
To love what you command
and desire what you promise;
that, among the swift and varied changes of the world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed
where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Note the structure. First, we cry out to God, noting that he is the “Almighty God.” And that is a good thing. We need an all-powerful God to bring to order our unruly wills and affections. And note the terrifying thing in this prayer. It is not the night. It’s not the moon. It’s not dangers or toils or snares. It’s us. It is our sinful wills. It is our twisted affections. We don’t have to point to things that go bump in the night that are scary. We are plenty scary in our selfishness, arrogance, hatred and anger.
Second, we bring our request and ask God to deliver us from ourselves by giving us grace to love his commands and to desire his promises. I love that quote from Alan Redpath that puts this request in perspective. He wrote: “Before we can pray, ‘Thy Kingdom come,’ we must be willing to pray, ‘My kingdom go.’” That is what I need God to do here as I give voice to this request.
Third, we provide the reason for the request: that our hearts will be fixed where true joy is to be found. Why is that important? Because more time than not our hearts are fixed on things that are scary, overwhelming, dark and poisonous. See, we live in a scary world that changes for the worst with each passing day. If you were looking for the fear in this prayer, here it is: Our hearts are all too often fixed on the swift and varied changes of the world, but here we cry out for grace, for peace, for comfort and even for joy.
Fourth, we give the basis of our request; and while it is the same in every prayer, it is essential for us to remember why we can come into God’s presence in the first place. It is only “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And then, fifth, we say the “Amen.” Amen is far from being a synonym to “over and out” or “good-bye” or “I’m done now.” Instead, it stresses the reliability and faithfulness of God. It not only asks God to hear our prayer and our heart, but it also asks God to respond according to his wisdom and will. It is saying, “here is my prayer, but more than what I have said, I want what you want.” One website that I saw commented that saying amen is serious business. It is. Saying amen says to God, “I leave this request in your hands alone. Not my will, but yours be done.” Bottom line: the structure of our prayers, although we rarely talk about it, matters.
But it is the content of this prayer that really speaks to my soul. See, I need help. This is a scary world, and I need help. And so, I need to pray for grace that I would, maybe even contrary to my own heart, love God’s commands. And because I am sinful through and through and only want what I want, I need grace to desire his promises. And because true joy is found only in knowing and doing God’s will, I need to pray each and every day that my heart may be fixed on God’s truth, beauty and goodness. And I need to pray that I would not be taken captive by my own fleeting lusts and that my heart may be unwavering, steadfast and unmovable in my love for God. God alone can do that (see the first lines of the prayer), and so I need to devote myself to praying this prayer often. See, we live in a scary world, but there is joy is pursuing God – even more scary is the thought that because of my selfish ambitions, I could foolishly miss out on both temporal and eternal joy. Thankfully, this prayer offers a remedy and a correction to that.
Here’s the bottom line: life is scary, and it changes quicky (usually, from bad to worse). We need to pray that God would so do a work of grace in us that we would love his commands and desire his promises so that we would stand firm in the center of your glorious and joy-filled will. But to do that we need grace and lots of it.
Oh, and one other thing. Things are scary, but do not give up hope. Do not give in to despair. Instead, keep looking up. That way no flying tortoises will crash into your head!