Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ramie Targoff, Common Prayer; The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England

Ramie Targoff, Common Prayer; The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2001

According to most historians of early modern England, the dominant model for understanding the relationship between external practice and internal belief in the Elizabethan church was neatly summarized by Francis Bacon’s assessment that the queen did not make “windows into men’s hearts and secret thoughts.” [Francis Bacon, “Certain Observations Made upon a libel Published this Present Year, 1592, entitled ‘A Declaration of the true causes of the great Troubles, presupposed to be intended against the Realm of England,’” in Bacon, Works, 8 vols., ed. James Speding (London: Longman, 1861), 1:178] Because rigid laws governing church attendance were rarely accompanied by probing inquiries into personal faith, so long as worshippers came to services on Sunday, they were free to believe whatever they chose. (2)

Although established churchmen recognized the potential for externally convincing but internally empty acts of devotion, they tended to minimize the threat that such dissembling posed either to the dissemblers themselves or to the congregation of eyewitnesses. / This position stemmed not from a cynical indifference to the worshipper’s inner state, but instead from an affirmative belief in what Aristotle describes as the efficacy of “habit.” Hamlet’s advice to Gertrude—“assume a virtue if you have it not”—originates from the behaviorist philosophy outlined in the Nicomachean Ethics, which posits a casual link between ethics (ethike) and habit (ethos). “Moral virtue,” Aristotle declares, “comes about as a result of habit… For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them… we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” [The Basic Words of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), 952] (4)

Indeed, what appears to be a simple request from an untaxing and potentially unmeaningful participation in a weekly service turns out to be a strategy to transform the worshipper’s soul. / The crucial vehicle for implementing this strategy was common prayer. From its initial construction in 1549, the Book of Common Prayer collapsed the distinctions between personal and liturgical worship by introducing a single paradigm for devotional language. For early modern churchgoers, common prayer had two important aspects. First, it was a standardized devotional practice, a public activity in which all English subjects were required to participate weekly. Second, in the form of a Prayer Book, it was a collection of premeditated texts, whose very formalization ensured, in the view of the established churchmen, a devotional efficacy that could not be attained with spontaneous and original prayer. (4)

The first chapters examine questions primarily related to common prayer as cultural practice. Here I mean to challenge one of the governing premises of our understanding of early modern religious culture: that the private sphere fostered by the Protestant Reformation represented a powerful alternative to the superficial and depersonalized practices of the medieval Catholic Church. What gets overlooked by this argument, as I argue in chapter 1, are two crucial features of late medieval and early modern devotional life that vastly complicate the binary between Catholicism and publicness on the one hand, and Protestantism and privacy on the other. First, the Catholic Church actively encouraged a private experience of its liturgy for its worshippers, whose most effective practice of prayer depended upon a strict isolation from the performance of the priest. Second, in designing the Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer and his fellow reformers actively sought to create a liturgical practice that did not accommodate personal deviation. (5)

Chapter 2 moves from the initial articulations of common prayer in the 1540s and 1550s to the first serious attacks on the Prayer Book from within the Protestant Church in the 1570s, attacks that focus on the devotional limitations or reading rather than spontaneously composing one’s prayers. The charges leveled by non-conformists against the liturgy for its imposition of a mechanical and artificial practice that inhibits devotional freedom are powerfully met by the clergyman Richard Hooker, who offers the first thorough defense of the establishment’s practice of common prayer. Far from imagining liturgical spontaneity as a liberation, Hooker offers a novel account of devotional freedom as an enormous burden upon the individual’s psychic well-being; formalized language becomes in this account a crucial safeguard against the natural weakness of human devotion. (5)

The second part of this study view the ways in which the language of common prayer influenced the shape of early modern devotional poetry. The phenomenon that these chapters describe depends upon perhaps the most significant change that the Prayer Book brought to the status of the English language: after centuries in which the vernacular served a secondary role as the vehicle for lay edification and devotion but not for liturgical prayer, English emerges as a sacred tongue deemed worthy of communicating formal petitions to God. (5)

In chapter 3, I trace the history of English devotional verse from its central and unselfconscious position in medieval lay worship, where it was used primarily as a mnemonic and didactic tool, to its status as a separate but compatible form of prayer in the late sixteenth century. This transformation turns on the role of the metrical Psalms, whose recognition by Philip Sidney, among others, as not only prayers but also poems helped to legitimize a place for poetry within the church. (6)

…what is the persuasive power of either enacting or witnessing external displays of piety? (6)

…formidable obstacles. First, they had inherited from Augustine a profound sense of how difficult it was to gauge sincerity in the act of worshipping God. In book 10 of the Confessions, Augustine announces his indifference to the hypothetical human audience who witnesses his prayer: “What does it matter to me whether men should hear what I have to confess… When they hear me speak about myself, how do they know whether I am telling the truth, since no one knows a man’s thoughts, except the man’s own spirit that is within him?” [Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (London: Penguin Books, 1961), 207.]

In his sermon on the Mount, Christ explicitly connects the public practice of prayer with hypocrisy: / And when thou prayest thou shalt not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues, and in corners of the streets, that they might be seen of men… Thou therefore, when thou prayest, go into thy chamber, and shut thy door, and pray to thy Father which is in secret. (Matt. 6:5-6) [Tyndale’s translation of the Matt. & William Tyndale, Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to different portions of the Holy Scripture, ed. Rev. Henry Walter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1848), 255.] What renders public prayer hypocritical, Christ seems to suggest, lies specifically in its performative nature: the worshipper caters to a visible and earthly rather than an invisible and divine audience. (7)

Faced with this notion of external devotion as at best an opaque, at worst a misdirected or fraudulent performance, English Protestants were challenged to construct a theological justification for the efficacy of public worship. The earliest example of such an account surfaces in the work of the Henrician martyr and Lutheran, William Tyndale, whose Exposition of Matthew (1533) systematically reverses both Augustine’s and Christ’s privileging of private over public devotion. In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Tyndale replaces a literal with a metaphorical interpretation of Christ’s instructions: / Of entering into the chamber and shutting the door to, I say as above, the meaning is that we should avoid all worldly praise and profit, and pray with a single eye and true intent according to God’s word; and it is not forbidden thereby to pray openly. (257) (7)

…Tyndale stresses the necessity of “open,” “general,” and “common” petitions. The biblical rule now becomes the exception: the “secret place” of prayer is required only to accommodate the exceedingly devoted worshipper, whose fervent manner of prayer extends beyond the normative standards of the public realm. (7)

The primary distinction Tyndale draws between true and false prayer relies entirely upon two different affective states of the body: / As before [Christ] rebuked their false intent in praying…even so here he rebuketh a false kind of praying, wherein the tongue and lips labor, and all the body is pained, but the heart talketh not with God, nor feeleth any sweetness at all…with their false intent of praying, [they] have turned it into a bodily labor, to vex the tongue, lips, eyes, and throat with roaring, and to weary all the members; so that they say (and may truly swear it) that there is no greater labor in the world than prayer. (258) / This description is surprising less for its association of painful exertion with fraudulent devotion than for its insistence on the bodily pleasure of true prayer: “But true prayer,” Tyndale continues, “would so comfort the soul and courage the heart, that the body, though it were half dead and more, would revive and be lusty again, and the labor would be short and easy” (258). It is not only the soul and heart but also the body that experiences the effects of sincere devotion. / If we compare Tyndale’s commentary on this verse to Martin Luther’s, which served here as elsewhere as his primary source, Tyndale’s somatic emphasis becomes more pronounced. (8)

Tyndale’s Exposition to Matthew marks the initial articulation in English Protestantism of an evaluative model that relies upon the external body for determining sincerity and hypocrisy at prayer. Within the context of public prayer, the worshippers’ physical posture, the tone of their words, and the nature of their expressions were frequently seen as reliable indicators of an otherwise invisible devotional state. By the early seventeenth century, to pray in the English church was always to perform. In a sermon on Matthew, chapter 7, verse 7—“Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you”—Lancelot Andrewes, the prominent court preacher and eventual bishop of Winchester (1619), explains: / … But when our Saviour enjoineth us the use of prayer, He expresseth it not in one word but in three several times, to teach us that when we come to pray to God the whole man must be occupied, and all the members of the body employed in the service of God. [Lancelot Andrewes, Works, 11 vols. (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1843), 5:325. This sermon is not dated.] / … Andrewes concludes that words alone are insufficient in the service of God: / Solomon prayed upon his knees; Daniel fell down upon his knees: so did St. Peter, so Paul; and not only men upon earth but the glorious spirits in heaven cast themselves and their crowns down before Him… He that giving prayed sit[ting] still without adding his endeavour, shall not receive the thing he prays for, for he must not only orare but laborare. (329). (9)

Andrewes’s belief in the efficacy of external labor as a crucial tool for exercising our devotion represents a seventeenth-century High Church response to prevalent theological concerns of man Tudor Protestants. (9)

But the seventeenth century, however, the concerns raised by early reformers such as Becon were met with increasingly elaborate accounts of the involuntary correspondence between external and internal states of devotion. Among other examples, the minister Robert Shelford declares in a sermon published in 1635 that “it cannot be, that these actions of the body accompanying those of the mind, should from their end be otherwise than spiritual duties.” [Five Pious and Learned Discourses…by Robert Shelford or Ringsfield in Suffolk. Priest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1635), 24.] (10)

…the period’s Aristotelian belief in the power of external gestures and habits to stimulate internal change. So Thomas Browne declares in his idiosyncratic, confessional treatise Religio Medici (1642): “At my devotion I love to use the civility of my knee, my hat, and hand, with all those outward and sensible motions which may express or promote my invisible devotion.” [Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, ed. James Winnow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 5.] The potential for “invisible devotion” to be enhanced by the process of its externalization—a potential that lies in the distinction between the two verbs “express” and “promote”… (11)

…an episode in the final book of The City of God, in which Augustine describes his reaction of total impotence in the face of a startling devotional act at the home of Innocentius, a wealthy citizen in Cathage…gravely ill with fistulas… [who] “fell down to the earth as if someone had struck him down… how he prayed, with what emotion, with what a flood of tears, with what groans and sobs that shook all his limbs and almost cut off his breath?” And yet, far from moving Augustine to pray with increased if not commensurate passion, he becomes paralyzed by Innocentius’s example… “I was quite unable to pray, but said in my heart only those few words: ‘Lord, what prayers off thy people dost thou hear, if thou dost not hear these?’” [The City of God against the Pagans, trans. William M. Green, 7 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), bk. 22, chap. 8, p. 213, 219.] / Whereas Augustine’s impulse is not to imitate but simply to observe or admire, early modern accounts emphasize the contagious power of watching a convincing act of prayer. (11)

…[Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia [known as the New Arcadia], ed. Maurice Evans (London: Penguin Books, 1977), 464.] Charles is said to have recited Pamela’s words from the Arcadia. Pamela’s prayer is the first of four prayers purportedly handed to the bishop of London, William Juxton, as Charles approached the scaffod; these texts were appended to Eikon Basilike, a posthumous book of Charles’s meditations that aroused such unexpected sympathy that thirty-five editions were published in the year following the king’s executions. Entitled “A Prayer in time of Captivity,” the version of Pamela’s prayer printed in Eikon Basilike is unaltered from Sidney’s original text with only one exception: Pamela’s final petition to an unspecified “Lord” to save her lover, Musidorus, is replaced with Charles’s appeal to Christ for heavenly mercy. ...For Milton, as we shall see in chapter 2, there was nothing more devotionally fraudulent than praying in set forms, let alone those of a heathen shepherdess. Within the terms of the Protestant establishment, however, Charles I’s memorization and recitation of Pamela’s words before his beheading spectacularly confirm the church’s insistence on the ways in which premeditated prayers could penetrate the inner self, shape a personal voice, and inscribe the printed words on the page upon the innermost parts of the spirit. Moreover, that this final display of faith involved the substitution of literature for liturgy reflects the slow but ultimately triumphant evolution of poesy from an unrecognized and often suspicious form of language into a compelling medium of prayer. (12-13)

John Donne will offer a similar account of this phenomenon in a 1622 sermon preached to the Earl of Carlile: / Where shall I find the Holy Ghost? I lock my door to my self, and I throw my self down in the presence of my God, I divest myself of all worldly thoughts, and I bend all my powers, and faculties upon God, as I think, and suddenly I find my self scattered, melter, fallen into vain thoughts, into no thoughts… I believe in the Holy Ghost, but do not find him, if I seek him only in private prayer; but in Ecclesia, when I go to meet him in the Church, when I seek him where he hath promised to be found… instantly the savor of this Myrrh is exalted, and multiplied to me; not a dew, but a shower is poured out upon me. [The Sermons of John Donne, ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, 10 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953-62), 5:13] / The disjunction Donne describes between the state of distraction, of “scattered, melted,…vain thoughts,” that characterizes his private prayer, and the ecstatic satisfaction of his public prayer—“not a dew, but a shower, is poured out upon me”—underscores the qualitative distinction between the two methods of devotional practice. For Donne, as we shall see in chapter 4, the public space of the church is the site for achieving selfhood, for maintain personal wholeness, for realizing the individual “I” not in spite of, but precisely because of, a collective of prayer. [These passages from Hooker and Donne rehearse the fear of private prayer that pervades many late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writings. Although there was certainly no injunction against praying privately, and in fact private prayer was always encouraged as an important complement to public devotion, English conformists generally considered what the Sermon on the mount refers to as the “secret closet” of prayer to be a far riskier devotional site than its public counterpart. For a rich and provocative account of the devotional manuals that were written specifically for the “prayer closet,” see Richard Rambuss, Closet Devotions (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998), 102-35. As Rambuss shows, unlike the public liturgy of the church, the manuals written for closet prayer, with titles like Enter into thy Closet, The Duties of the Closet, and The Privy Key of Heaven, encourage an interiorized and often eroticized devotion that depends upon both bodily and spiritual searching of that self. Most of the works that Rambuss examines were published in the latter half of the seventeenth century, and seem likely to reflect changes in devotional climate in the aftermath of the Restoration. ] (53)

In a 1625 sermon preached at St. Paul’s Cross, Donne challenges the familiar Puritan notion that personal prayer can be generated through only original and extempore worship. … Praying spontaneously, Donne contends, not only severs the worshippers’ ties jeopardizes their chances for salvation: / But if I come to pray or to preach without this kind of Idea, if I come to extemporal prayer, and extemporal preaching, I shall come to an extemporal faith, and extemporal religion; and then I must look for an extemporal Heaven, a Heaven to be made for me; for to that Heaven which belongs to the Catholic Church, I shall never come, except I go by the way of the Catholic Church, by former Ideas, former examples, former patterns. [Potter/Simpson, 7:61] / The triad of terms—“ideas,” “examples,” and “patterns”—which Donne characterizes as “imprinted” within him powerfully evokes the model of inwardness cultivated by the established church; the printed forms of the Prayer Book replace the untexualized and hence unreliable utterances of extempore prayer. “Let us not pray,” Donne argues, “not preach, not hear, slackly, suddenly unadvisedly, extemporally, occasionally, indiligenly; but let all our speech to him be weighed, and measured in the weights of the Sanctuary, let us be content to preach, and to hear within the compass of our Articles, and content to pray in those forms which the Church hath mediated for us, and recommended to us” (2:50). “Slackly, suddenly, unadvisedly, extemporally” : far from representing, as Puritans maintained, the highest expression of the spirit, extempore prayer becomes a form of devotional sloth. (88)

…this preference for poetry that seems private and original over that which seems formal and prescribed exactly mirrors Puritan attacks upon common prayer in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The eventual poetic consequence of this contempt for formalized language lies in English Romanticism, for which we might simply recall Wordsworth’s declaration in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads: “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser, 3 vols. (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1974), 1:126). (87)


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