Words Make Worlds

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Lit candles cheer a jet-lagged heart. They frame and cradle the unshaped, lingering dark of the hours before dawn. A traveler might find herself sore-eyed, unravelled in the long night. But the self-assertion of a small, merry flame, defiant of the great dark round it, coaxes the mind into an assertion of its own. And the power of the mind is in the words it kindles, bright and fierce, to shape the night.

O Lord, open thou our lips . . .

Words, like light, can frame the time and space in which we move. Like flame in a darkened room, words have the power to define and form our hours, to shape the spaces of time in which we relate, create, believe. The words we use to describe and meet each day, the ones we allow to shape our contours of experience, teach us what to see and how to meet both joy in the day and sorrow in the darkness. Words make worlds, you know, and each one we speak forms the way we see our own.

And our mouths shall shew forth thy praise . . .

I just watched the hour of six AM slip by the window. I also saw the hours of three, four, and five. I’ve lit a lot of candles in the watches of this night, but I’ve also kindled a great many words. Instead of the shadows telling me what to think, I’ve lit the minutes with flames of prayer and poetry, lined the formless dark with thoughts that make a sacred space of this unformed hour, a filled, holy room of this hush. But as with many who watch in long darkness, the words were not my own. They were a gift, and in some way, an inheritance.

O God make speed to save us . . .

One of the best beauties of Oxford to me, one I never fully considered before I arrived, has been the chance to take part in the practice of daily, corporate, liturgical prayer. Morning and evening, I gather with others to speak and hear the songs, canticles, Scriptures, Psalms, and collects said by those who have worshipped in the Anglican church for centuries.

O Lord make haste to help us . . .

In the morning, the air is sharp and cold in the chapel, and we shuffle, subdued into the hush of early day. The words of the prayers fall like drops of water onto the cool surface of our sleepy minds, rippling out to wake and gird us for the day. At night, shadows cluster like dark birds under the pews, and the air is thick with cold and our own breath as the prayers for protection rise from our lips as the light falls. The words are a kind of starlight blossoming in the mind.

The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end . . .

For centuries, the Anglican church has used the Book of Common Prayer for its worship. When I first arrived in Oxford and had many questions about the liturgy and practices of worship I was beginning to experience, a kind tutor gave me an old Book of Common Prayer. He apologized that it was the only one to hand, with its battered maroon cover and tattered seams. I liked its age. It meant other hands than mine had loved it before. “Read this,” he said, “study it, use it now and then in your devotions and you will understand a lot simply by way of worship.”

Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit . . .

So I did. I kept it on the windowsill next to my bed and began to say the confessions at night, the Psalms and collects early in the morning. I found the words a rich, strengthening frame to my usual rhythms of Scripture and prayer. Combined with the daily chapel services, I began to be aware of the liturgies forming my thought. In the past weeks, those words have anchored the opening and closing of my days. I find myself continuing the prayers as I lie down to sleep. I find stray words of them girding me throughout the tense moments of the day. I find them most often when I am alone, an echo in the mind that fills the moments that might be lonely with the voice of worship.

For you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth . . .

And I am aware of a wonder as I do: I speak these words each day, remember and breathe them out in the night in the company of an invisible host. For these are the prayers of generation tested through decades of war, through cultural shift, and societal change. They are fitted to high and holy days, and the lowlier rhythms of ordinary time. Daily, they are spoken by a great host of the faithful around the world, a way of centering the heart, not just on a general faith, but on Christ. Each prayer in my tiny, bedraggled book is a way of journeying toward him, but a journey taken in company with all who share those sacred words.

Keep us, O Lord, as the apple of your eye . . .

I know from the study I’ve done in language and imagination that the words we speak form the worlds we see. The words we speak together, in culture or church, to a mighty extent, narrate our lives. The words we use do not merely describe our stories, they shape them. They tell them.

Hide us under the shadow of your wings . . .

On the airplane home back at Christmas, from London to Chicago, my sister Joy and I had a very gregarious flight attendant. He tried three times to steal our dark chocolate bar, and remarked on the piles of books stacked on our trays. My stack was topped with my battered Book of Common Prayer. Raising an eyebrow at it, he made no remark but proceeded to chat us up, and try, once more to steal our chocolate. He turned to the topic of movies. “The Princess Bride,” he crowed, “now that is a quotable movie. My daughter’s favorite. We can quote it back and forth for hours. Crazy, isn’t it, how people all over the world can get along just by quoting their favorite movies together?”

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping . . .

With a wink, he left. But I was struck. I fingered my little prayer book and thought of the words crammed into its wrinkled old pages, words whose splendor and ache formed the faith of ages. And then I thought of the many conversations I’ve had in which, just as the flight attendant said, the shared narrative was the movie just watched. I thought of how pop culture is just that, a whole, shared culture, a shared narrative, a common view of life conditioned by the lyrics of pop songs and TV shows. I thought of how the quips and movie lines and best-loved lyrics could be called a cultural liturgy, the words we use to form our common view of the world.

That awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace . . .

What are the shared narratives of our time? What are the verbal liturgies of our culture? What words do we speak together and how does our communal speech form our vision of each other and of the world we inhabit? What do we repeat? What do we sing? Because the words we share as a culture play a large part in creating the culture we inhabit. And if the words of our own culture are largely void of the narrative of God’s presence, if we work, shop, love, and communicate in spaces shaped by a language other than faith, how do we tell Christ back into the liturgies of our days?

Give peace, O Lord, in all the world . . .

Perhaps by a rhythm of prayer? I am almost startled by the way that the old, worn prayers of past generations have renewed my faith in the past weeks. I’ve thought often about the place of liturgy in faith since I’ve been in England. In our independent age, I’ve often heard liturgy questioned. Is it just rote? The bent of our culture is to opine that authenticity exists only in spontaneous free speech, in self expression rather than corporate. But we are conversational, communal beings. We do not exist, or worship in isolation. We need the language of generations before us to speak what we are too weary to speak, to affirm God’s faithfulness then, and now. We need to remember that we are part of a mighty, ongoing story, that we join a host in prayer, present round the world and through the ages.

For only in thee can we live in safety . . .

Words make worlds, and in the long darkness, I am thankful for the world that the tried and hallowed prayers of my little book have woven about me. I am thankful for the fellowship that comes to me in those words, from a prayer book turned by many hands through the years. Seven AM is about to breathe over my window panes. The light is now navy rather than black. Dawn is almost here. I open my little book. I turn from the night prayers to those that greet the morning. I speak them into the grey and formless hour of first light and think of Genesis 1, of God speaking light into the void, forever defining light and darkness. “The worlds were framed by the word of God.”

O Lord, save thy people and bless thine heritage . . .

And in his image, in company with an invisible host speaking the same morning prayer around the world and through the ages, I look into the darkness and speak.

Glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost . . .

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Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.


9 Comments

  1. Karoline

    This is beautiful — thank you. Most of the most beautiful and true thoughts penned were not “spontaneous,” and I love your comment, “We need the language of generations before us to speak what we are too weary to speak, to affirm God’s faithfulness then, and now. We need to remember that we are part of a mighty, ongoing story, that we join a host in prayer, present round the world and through the ages.” I think I need to go find a copy of The Book of Common Prayer…

  2. Judy

    I love this piece, Sarah.
    I sometimes wonder if there isn’t a kind of arrogance in assuming that all that comes spontaneously is somehow better than these words of the ages. Together with the psalms, they have been a comfort to me in the darkest of life’s experiences. They are one of the great treasures of my life.
    It is a delight to read of your fresh discovery of their beauty and power.

  3. Amelia

    This is so beautifully written. I was taken right to the heart of your prayer time and marvel, too, at the ways that words and rituals can connect people of all times and places.

  4. Peter B

    Everyone has a liturgy; that never occurred to me, though it seems so obvious now. What a sweet reminder of where my own dependence should be (and is, whether I recognize it or not).

  5. Sasha

    Thank you. This is beautiful. I don’t know what else to say, except that I think I know exactly what you mean. I’ve recently started attending a church with a much more structured liturgy than I’d ever seen, and it is wonderful. We sing a lot of psalms, too; now ancient songs and prayers spring into my head as I’m walking down the street, or nervously studying for a big test. It’s both humbling and inspiring to consider how many Christians throughout history have spoken the same words.

    I love how you describe words framing time and space, defining experience. Good words guide us through the dark, remind us who we are. I think of Janner continually reminding Kalmar of his name in the last two Wingfeather books, and the memory of Artham’s words keeping him focused on his own role. Both are almost a kind of liturgy, words to strengthen them, renew their confidence in the Maker’s purpose and prepare them for their appointed tasks.

    (I guess I did find something to say! Thank you again for the wonderful post. I will definitely save this.)

  6. Lisa

    Lovely words! I, too, have been discovering the beauty of a more liturgical take on worship. Some of those tried and true prayers have such richness and depth, so much more than our “spontaneous” ones tend to be. Thanks for sharing your experiences so beautifully.

  7. Laure Hittle

    This article has really been working on me. i love liturgy and i greatly miss it, but when i read the bit about The Princess Bride as a sort of cultural liturgy, i immediately recognized myself. Not in The Princess Bride, but in another fictional narrative characterized by absurdity. i am a Weem adrift, and i’m grateful for the ways G-d speaks to me through fiction, but i do need more scripture. G-d is always showing up in unexpected places, but i still need to seek Him.

    This morning i read an article on Amos, written by my OT professor, Danny Carroll. It was an exploration of how Amos views worship and the ramifications we can draw for our own contemporary worship practices. It started out thusly:

    Disagreements today about worship are often generated by limiting it to “experiencing G-d.” This article proposes that worship recognize its role in shaping Christian identity and preparing the people of G-d for its mission in the world.”

    Thanks, Sarah, for being one voice among many this week. i think i’m learning something here.

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