“To Thy care, O God, I commend my soul” an essay on A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie
Précis: Contains thirty-one morning and evening prayers, plus a Sunday morning and evening prayer. Subjects range from personal confession, holiness, and growth to concern for family, neighbors, missions, and the world. Though in many ways quite original, the prayers will be found at times to echo psalms and other Scripture, the Book of Common Prayer, and many of the Christian classics. It is written with the eloquence of simplicity and directness. Each prayer occupies exactly one page, and the page opposite is blank, presumably reserved for one’s own notes. More: I have found that this classic little book must be taken in small doses. Frankly, I have read it so slowly that I have no idea what it says as a whole, if indeed there is any overarching message or theme. But the parts are so big that just swallowing one of them is enough to keep one fed for days. John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer is a book of prayers, morning and evening, for thirty-one days plus a Sunday. There is no set pattern to the prayers, and they cover a wide range of subjects. But the subjects are deeply personal. They touch one’s conscience, resolve, faith, relationships, outlook, hope, inner attitude, piety, and love. Some of the prayers contain paraphrases from the Psalms. Others seem to echo the Book of Common Prayer or other well-known Christian literature. Still others have a poetic flavor all their own. Any of them, if one takes more than a syllable to heart, will make one a better person, and a better disciple. Yet they can be prayed. The language is accessible; the writing is great, moving, and effective, and thus it is almost unnoticeable in the torrent of feelings that flow through it. I have read some of the prayers several times (I have not gone through the book systematically, but in skips and spots), and yet they always seem fresh, challenging, and convicting, reminding me of what I should be saying to the Lord, what I should be listening for from the Holy Spirit. Nothing comes through to the reader more clearly than Baillie’s personal love for the Lord, and his love of pleasing Him. This is infectious, even when the subjects are ordinary. For the focus is always on simple things: charity towards neighbor, a civil tongue, self-control, daily duties, patience. Worst of all is acknowledgement of the tendency to sin, and indeed, acknowledgement of particular sins, which Baillie invites the reader to fill in by leaving spaces at appropriate points. This stuff is hard to take, for I fall so short. Still, I can pray John Baillie’s prayers: they are written for those who need to pray them, like me and, I suppose, like you. A sample, part of day 3, morning:
Where deed of mine can help to make this world a better place for men to live in, where word of mine can cheer a despondent heart or brace a weak will, where prayer of mine can serve the extension of Christ’s kingdom, there let me do and speak and pray. OK, this is general, broad; if it were not so profound, there might be room to squeeze past. But then we get this: This day, O Lord — give me courtesy: give me meekness of bearing, with decision of character: give me longsuffering: give me charity: give me chastity: give me sincerity of speech: give me diligence in my allotted task. How am I going to duck this? Baillie loves lists and imitative repetition. But a list like that is more than a literary device; it is a mouthful, a heart full, a soul full, a life full. I can confidently recommend this lovely book. I warn you, though, you should be prepared to be disturbed. RMA, April, 2000 Baillie, John, A Diary of Private Prayer, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949.
See quotations in CQOD.
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