From Tangled Thoughts to Tranquillity
One of my constant companions, a book that I dip into almost daily, is Elizabeth Goudge’s Diary of Prayer. Published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1966 it is set out in diary form with a prayer or two for each day of the year. The prayers are taken from different faiths and pertain roughly to the Church’s calendar, although as Christmas is the only static festival of the Christian year they do not always correspond to the relevant date, this does not detract from the anthology in any way.
People sent Elizabeth prayers and poems knowing that they would always delight her. One person, a lady called Adelaide Makower, sent her all the Jewish prayers that she uses and Elizabeth also credits her with sending or finding others for her too. The whole anthology took many years to put together, and there is no doubt that Elizabeth used them on a daily basis herself. They were not collected with the intention of being put together as a book at first, but to help Elizabeth learn to pray in an organised and methodical manner. One of the Jewish prayers that speaks to me in particular is the entry for September 3rd which starts “Though our mouths were full of song as the sea, our tongues of exultation as the fullness of its waves,”
Each “chapter” or month starts with a verse that sets the tone. For example, April’s begins with a poem by the Welsh writer David of Gwylym. In it the poet is describing the dawn chorus in a cwm in Wales and attributing clerical roles for all the birds he can hear. “The Chief Priest was the nightingale: the lark and thrush assisted him: and some small bird (I do not weet his name) acted as Clerk.” Both Elizabeth and her Father were enthusiastic Ornithologists so the poem appeals directly to her as it is full of detail about birds, their calls and habits.
April is also the month most likely to contain the celebration of Easter, so the poem is echoing the most important Mass of the Christian Year. In fact the year the Diary was put together, Easter fell on April 1st.
The depth of Elizabeth’s reading is obvious throughout the work; she doesn’t use the trite or overworked. David of Gwylym was a 14th century medieval poet little known outside of Wales. Maybe she discovered him through Jessie who had extensive Welsh connections. She transposed this love for obscure writers to Hilary in the Eliots; he you will remember was always being accused of quoting from them at the slightest provocation.
There are sections for various afflictions and all conditions of humanity, as in June’s section for the poor, and homeless, the refugees, the lonely and the unemployed. Refugees from the Second World War were a common sight in the London of the 40’s and 50’s and later on in that decade the migration of thousands of Commonwealth immigrants occurred. June’s entries portray the range of faiths that Elizabeth used to touch the heart of the matter; from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali No X
“Here is Thy footstool and there rest Thy feet where live the poorest, the lowliest, and the lost.”
to Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury’s
“O God, the Father of the forsaken, the Help of the weak, the Supplier of the needy, who teachest us that love towards the race of man is the bond of perfection….”
Elizabeth had a vast compassion for the dispossessed, born perhaps out of her deep love and connection to place. Maybe it was akin to her secret fear of the shapeless darkness that waited for her in her depression, that fear of becoming nothing. She kept the extent of her charity private, but it was large, personal and at times took intensely practical forms, such as continuing to pay past employees when they retired.
Elizabeth quotes extensively in all her works, which adds another dimension to her writing. I’m always being sent off on literary adventures, discovering writers and poets that have helped to enrich my life. One of my favourite finds from this book was”The Prayers from the Ark “by Carmen Bernos De Gasztold, a poet and Benedictine nun who lived at the Abbaye Saint Louis de Temple at Limon-par-Igny, France. Most of the prayers/poems had been written during the war when she was forced to do uncongenial work in the laboratory of a silk factory near Paris. This took place under the Nazi occupation, when life was hard, cruel and she was often cold and hungry. She takes the animals and our attitude towards them and turns it around so that we can learn from them the virtues of their strengths of patience, hard work, and the putting to use of talents and abilities to the greater good.
I am not one to despise your gifts,
May you be blessed
who spread the riches of your sweetness
for my zeal………..
let my small span of ardent life
melt into our great communal task;
to lift up to your glory
this temple of sweetness,
a citadel of incense,
a holy candle myriad-celled,
moulded to your graces
and of the hidden work.
The book is dedicated to Sonia Harwood, and her son Andrew Harwood explained the reasons behind this.
“My mother so liked Elizabeth’s book “The White Witch” that, in January 1960, she wrote congratulating her and enquiring about the location of the cottage featured therein. Elizabeth replied on January 28th stating that she actually lived in the cottage! From this small beginning a regular swapping of correspondence was started, and eventually the shy Elizabeth said she would like them to talk on the phone and so they did in 1965. Finally Elizabeth decided she wanted to meet my mother in person and so in 1967 she travelled up to Rose Cottage. Their friendship flourished and they would meet in the spring and autumn of each year.
In one of her letters Elizabeth said she wanted to dedicate a book to my mother and offered her a choice of two – “Linnets and Valerians” or “An Anthology of Prayer”- she chose what turned out to be called “A Diary of Prayer”. But when the “Linnets and Valerians” was published Elizabeth sent my mother a copy inscribed as follows -“Dear Sonia, This is the book that would have been dedicated to you had you not preferred to wait for the prayer anthology, and so its half yours. Love and best wishes from Elizabeth Goudge”
Elizabeth strikes me as being the sort of person who needed to make the best of each moment of her day, especially in the important task of prayer. Setting out the prayers in a structured manner, gave her a focus and helped to resolve her tangled thoughts into tranquillity. Whatever the reason for the book’s conception, this collection was undoubtedly put together by someone who loved poetry and the way that words can be made to sing on the page.
With thanks to Andrew Harwood.
Goudge Elizabeth 1966 Dairy of Prayer Hodder & Stoughton
Carmen Bernos De Gasztold 1963 The Prayers from the Ark MacMillan & Co