Praying the Hymnal
IF YOU THINK that poetry is just a long-winded, florid way of expressing what could be said briefly in prose, consider the following well-known line (Gray’s Elegy):
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Nine words, and none more than five letters.
Now explain in prose what these words mean. Thirty words at least are required to do it justice.
There are hundreds of Christian hymns, stating or illustrating basic doctrines of the faith, which provide a resource to facilitate our devotions. So we can always pray a hymn when other words fail us.
Succinctness is not the only virtue of hymns. The following are also true:
A line of a hymn is easy to remember;
Hymns are common to Christians of every denomination and tradition, and also to people with little regular Church-experience
Hymns are associated with particular tunes which are easy to recall.
Here are some Christmas hymn lines, ‘unpacked’ to show the wealth of devotional material which each contains. Each is followed by a brief suggestion for turning it into prayer. (The numbers in square brackets relate to the English Hymnal.)
1. God and sinners reconciled 
John Wesley reckoned that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5.19) is the most important verse in the whole Bible. It contains the entire mission statement of god’s creation, redemption and sanctification of man through our Lord Jesus Christ. The First Adam and his progeny became estranged (or ‘de-conciled’) with the Godhead through sin; the Second Adam, by his incarnation, sacrifice, death, resurrection and ascension became the means of re-conciliation to all those who believe in him.
Pray that we may continually recall our indebtedness to God by ‘giving up ourselves to his service’.
2. The heedless world slept on 
It should come as no surprise to us that in any generation many will ignore the truth of the Incarnation, and any personal significance which it might have for them. It was only a tiny minority who were immediately aware of what had taken place: the Holy Family; shepherds who were wise enough to know that they knew nothing; and wise men who were wise enough to realise that they didn’t know everything.
Pray that we may share the devotion of Mary, the simplicity of the shepherds and the Wisdom of the Magi.
3. Born the King of Angels 
To which of the angels did [God] say at any time, ‘Sit on my right hand’ (Hebrews 1.13). As God in Christ shared our humanity, so we are enabled to share his divinity. He is transforming us not into supermen but into kings and priests in the kingdom of his Son.
Pray that we may recognize that there are no ‘ordinary’ Christians, but unique individuals like us who are becoming ‘like him’ the more they come to ‘see him as he is’; likewise that there exist no ‘ordinary’ people but innumerable persons created in God’s image and intended, by his enabling grace, to become progressively more like him.
4. The dear Christ enters in 
I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith (Ephesians 3.14, 17). Conversion, though it begins with repentance, by no means ends there. It is a lifelong progression – or transposition – from the human to the divine. The indwelling of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is not a once-off experience but an ongoing process, lasting our lifetime and beyond, including the making of new acquaintances not only with Christ himself, but also with those whom he is bringing to perfection with us, that they without us should not be made perfect (Hebrews 11.40)
Pray for our fellow-Christians, that God’s perfecting of each of us individually may not conflict with, or hinder, His perfecting of others.
5. There is room in my heart for thee 
Whilst it is true that divine grace does not destroy human nature but perfects it (Aquinas, Summa Theologica Article 8), which of us has never been aware of a conflict between God’s will for you and me, and our own preferred course of action? Sooner or later ‘something has to give’. Very often that ‘thing’ will be an attribute of ourselves, innate or acquired, which not only we but others (rightly) hold in high esteem: health, wealth, happiness, humour, success, security are just a few examples. What and if God should see fit to invite us voluntarily to relinquish one or more of these in order that he may hand us something even better – holy charity in the place of our razor-sharp and brightly-polished wit, for example?
Pray for the grace to recognize when room needs making for God to implant another virtue in the garden of our soul, necessitating the uprooting of one of our ‘darlings’ for it to able to grow in its place.
So there are just a few examples of how to pray the hymnal. With a little practice this becomes a habit which, in times of spiritual dryness is, literally, a Godsend.
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Francis Gardom is Hon Secretary of Cost of Conscience.