Prayer – from God’s point of view

So far, in this blog, I have written a lot about Anglo-Saxon prayer, which is the main focus of my research; and, in particular, how monks and nuns thought about their prayers. But one issue that I have never yet addressed is: what is God supposed to be thinking, all this time? What is prayer like from his end of things? Or – and maybe this is a slightly easier question to answer – how did Anglo-Saxon monks and nuns conceive of him, up in Heaven and listening to their prayers?

In another post, I discussed a confessional guide which cautions the penitent not to confess more sins than they have actually committed, as God doesn’t want anyone to lie about themself. What else might he be thinking, doing, seeing, or hearing?

I’ve mentioned the Bury Psalter before. This mid-eleventh-century psalter has a number of interesting prayers (many of which were written much earlier, and came from Frankish sources) appended to it; these have been edited by André Wilmart (in the Downside Review, 1930). Many of these can be found in other sources too, but taken together they include a notably high number of interesting little moments in which we can see how the writers of these prayers thought of God as listening to them. Take this ‘Oratio vivorum atque mortuorum’ (prayer of the living and of the dead). The speaker asks,

… respice domine secundum magnam misericordiam tuam super nos …

(O Lord, according to your great mercy, look upon us …)

It’s not that unusual, in this kind of prayer, for the speaker to ask God to look upon and pity him or her. But, in this case, the writer of the prayer elaborates on the image, imagining exactly how God is, up in heaven:

 … respice domine de sancta sede maiestatis tuae …

(Look, O Lord, from the holy seat of your majesty … )

And what is God doing up on his throne? The following prayer tells us:

Exaudi Deus orationem serui tui, et perueniant ad aures piaetatis tuae praeces, quas pro me effundo …

(God, hear the prayer of your servant, and may the prayers, which I pour out for myself, come to the ears of your pity …)

If the reader of this manuscript read these prayers together, he or she think of God as on his throne, with his/her prayers ascending up to his ears. And not just to his ears, either:

… preces meas ante faciem domini in odorem caelestis paradysi turifica ungentorum.

(… cense my prayers before the face of the Lord in the scent of the perfumes of the heavenly paradise …)

That’s from a prayer to St Edmund the Martyr, just a few folios earlier. The saint and the other martyrs are asked to waft the speaker’s prayers, as if they were incense, in God’s face – and, presumably, his nose too.

It’s not just in Bury, either. A couple of absolutions found in the Lanalet Pontifical (a book of rites for bishops) are similar. The speaker is to ask God to listen to him and pardon the sinner for whom he is praying,

… ut precibus nostris aurem tuae pietatis inclinare digneris …

(Pontificale lanaletense, Rouen, Bibliothèque municipale, A.27, ed. G. H. Doble, p. 76)

(… that you may deign to incline the ear of your pity to our prayers …)

In other absolutions in the same run of prayers, we see God reaching out a hand to the penitent:

… ut huic famulo tuo quem a terreni sorde pulueris erigimus manum misericordiae tuę porrigas …

(Pontificale lanaletense, p. 80)

(… that you may stretch out the hand of your mercy to this your servant, whom we raise up from the filth of the earthly dust …)

God is imagined as reaching out and touching the penitent. This kind of closeness is also seen, perhaps more so, in prayers written in Old English, such as one found both in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 391 (the Portiforium of St Wulstan) and in London, British Library Cotton Tiberius A. iii. Beginning (in the version in Tiberius) ‘Min drihten leof, for þinre þære mycelan mildheortnysse’, this prayer is written in Old English, and is amongst my favourites, partly because of how the speaker relates to God. The speaker asks by praying for his mercy; and then,

Min drihten, ne læt me næfre færlicum deaðe of þissum earm life gewitan ac loce hwænne min tima beo 7 þin willa sy þæt ic þis læne lif forlætan sceol‹d›e.

(eds. Pulsiano and McGowan, p. 209)

(My Lord, do not ever let me go out of this wretched life by a sudden death; but look when my time will be and when it may be your will that I should give up this temporary life.)

That is, God knows – indeed, can look (loce) and see – when it is that the speaker will have to give up his life. He goes on to pray for others, for all the friends and relations who depend upon his prayers, and for all of those who have ever done him good. Returning to the ‘Oratio vivorum atque mortuorum’ in the Bury Psalter, another one of the prayers says something similar, except this time, again, the speaker imagines a little bit about what is in God’s mind. He or she asks forgiveness for all friends and relatives, whether living or dead, ‘quorum numerum et nomina tu scis’: ‘whose number and names you know’. It’s just a little throwaway line, but the author of the prayer is thinking about who God is, and his knowledge of human beings, and how they are related to one another, how they care about and depend on one another for prayers and support.

God’s face, God’s eyes, God’s (implied) nose, the ears of his pity and the hand of his mercy, his knowledge of the speaker’s family and friends – this isn’t a theological conception of God as being inconceivable and beyond human understanding. The kind of God who turns up in many prayers used in the Anglo-Saxon church is imagined in human terms, with bodily senses with which to look upon and listen to them. It’s a more intimate way of picturing him. In another post, I will write more about the Tiberius prayer and why it is one of my favourites.

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