Emerson’s essay Prayers, appeared in the Dial in July, 1842. The essay is rather odd for Emerson because very little of it is his own writing. He does not talk about the purpose of prayer or how we should pray. He pretty much just prints prayers he thinks are exemplary without explaining why.
He does say at the beginning of the essay that “prayers are not made to be overheard.” But he is glad that a few records of prayers exist and wishes that they would be collected in a mixed volume so Christian prayers would be mixed with non-Christian prayers for the reader’s edification.
So what prayers does Emerson choose for the reader’s edification? Of course he mentions Jesus but instead of including any specific prayers, declares that Jesus himself was a sort of prayer. We have a prayer from Euripides, one from Socrates, another from Wacic the Caliph. We also have a prayer of “a deaf and dumb boy” whose journal recently came into Emerson’s hands.
We have a couple of prayers that are thought to be by Henry David Thoreau’s brother, John. Another prayer in verse belongs to Thoreau, though the author is not named. Here is Thoreau’s verse prayer in its entirety:
Great God, I ask thee for no meaner pelf
Than that I may not disappoint myself,
That in my action I may soar as high,
As I can now discern with this clear eye.
And next in value, which thy kindness lends,
That I may greatly disappoint my friends,
Howe’er they think or hope that it may be,
They may not dream how thou’st distinguished me.
That my weak hand may equal my firm faith,
And my life practice more than my tongue saith;
That my low conduct may not show,
Nor my relenting lines,
That I thy purpose did not know,
Or overrated thy designs.
A humble prayer, but sly too. I like that he asks that he may not disappoint himself but that he greatly disappoint his friends. I also like the final stanza and how he asks that his low conduct and any lack of understanding not be revealed. A prayer definitely worthy of Thoreau.
Emerson includes one more prayer in the essay, a very long one from The Confessions of Saint Augustine in which Augustine offers praise to God for the light, truth, charity and eternity God has granted to his soul.
Perhaps Emerson prints the prayers in the essay without much explication because he thinks they say all that needs to be said. Perhaps, since they receive the blessing of Emerson, he wants them to stand as examples of the kind of prayer we should all aspire to.
Next week’s Emerson: Agriculture of Massachusetts