John Donne was a Jacobean poet and Anglican priest who became Dean of St Paul’s under James VI (James I to those south of the border, I am not going to call someone a Jacobite and then not give James his Scottish number.) He wrote these words on prayer which, if we are being honest, we know all too well but admit to, all too little.
When we consider with a religious seriousness the manifold weaknesses of the strongest devotions in time of prayer, it is a sad consideration. I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in, and invite God, and his angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his angels, for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door; I talk on, in the same posture of praying, eyes lifted up, knees bowed down, as though I prayed to God; and, if God or his angels should ask me when I thought last of God in that prayer, I cannot tell: sometimes I find that I had forgot what I was about, but when I began to forget it, I cannot tell. A memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a fear of tomorrow’s dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine ear, a light in mine eye, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer. So certainly is there nothing, nothing in spiritual things, perfect in this world.
Of course we all recognise this but there were four words that leapt out at me probably because I know for myself have in the past certainly sunk a prayer time, ‘an anything, a nothing’.
We can wait until the noise has passed; we can have a pen and paper to jot down the distracting thought; we can make sure we are comfortable and avoid the straw under the knee; we can employ the practice enshrined in the rosary, but not exclusive to it, of bringing our prayers back to God at particular points to stop us straying (or should that be straying too far); but that ‘an anything, a nothing’ strikes home. How can we deal with the anythings and nothings that distract our prayers?
Donne also points out our prayers are never, and indeed can never be, perfect in this world. Is that a comfort or a worry? I think the former, for then the anythings and nothings don’t need to become rods with which to beat ourselves with.
Our prayers will never be perfect in this world, what a relief that is.