George Herbert’s Morning Prayer: “Mattins”

Through Lent with George Herbert:
Thursday after the Second Sunday of Lent

Mattins

I cannot ope mine eyes,
But thou art ready there to catch
My morning-soul and sacrifice:
Then we must needs for that day make a match.

My God, what is a heart?
Silver, or gold, or precious stone,
Or star, or rainbow, or a part
Of all these things or all of them in one?

My God, what is a heart?
That thou should’st it so eye, and woo,
Pouring upon it all thy art,
As if that thou hadst nothing else to do?

Indeed man’s whole estate
Amounts (and richly) to serve thee:
He did not heav’n and earth create,
Yet studies them, not him by whom they be.

Teach me thy love to know;
That this new light, which now I see,
May both the work and workman show:
Then by a sun-beam I will climb to thee.

Matins1549

In pre-Reformation England monks, nuns, secular clergy, and pious laity would pray eight times in a twenty-four hour period. The services were, as the Wikipedia article points out:

  • Matins (during the night, at about 2 a.m.); also called Vigil and perhaps composed of two or three Nocturns
  • Lauds or Dawn Prayer (at dawn, about 5 a.m., but earlier in summer, later in winter)
  • Prime or Early Morning Prayer (First Hour = approximately 6 a.m.)
  • Terce or Mid-Morning Prayer (Third Hour = approximately 9 a.m.)
  • Sext or Midday Prayer (Sixth Hour = approximately 12 noon)
  • None or Mid-Afternoon Prayer (Ninth Hour = approximately 3 p.m.)
  • Vespers or Evening Prayer (“at the lighting of the lamps”, about 6 p.m.)
  • Compline or Night Prayer (before retiring, about 7 p.m.)

When the Reformation came to England Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, took the opportunity to create liturgies and services in English, the chief among them being Holy Communion and the two daily services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. These were published in his lifetime as the Books of Common Prayer of 1549 and 1552, and remain more or less the same in the official Book of Common Prayer of today. In some respects the two daily services of the word replicated the recorded practices of cathedrals and churches some 1000 years before. However, there was very little preserved to say how these services were done before the Church in Western Europe adopted the more elaborate monastic practice of the eight offices. So Cranmer combined the services, and Morning Prayer had elements of matins, Lauds, and Prime. He also introduced the reading of large portions of scripture, so that over a year a church using the new English lectionary would have read through virtually the whole Bible.

Church people can be a bit conservative, and so the old name of Matins carried over to Morning Prayer, especially in its sung version with chants. The Morning Prayer service is still known as Mattins (a variant spelling), especially when it is the main service on a Sunday.

While the monastic Matins was held in the darkness of the night, never ending any later than sunrise, Morning Prayer is typically early in daylight, anywhere from 7:00 am to 11:00 am, depending on the community or person. Herbert’s poem speaks of the poet waking up to light in the morning, and meditation on the meeting of God and the believer first thing in the morning. So, that explains the name. It is not really about the service created by Cranmer which Herbert would have known intimately from having recited thousands of times over the years. The pattern is 5.8.8.10, and the rhyme is ABAB.

In the first stanza the poet speaks of God being there when he wakes up. God is ready to catch his “morning-soul and sacrifice”, which is an enigmatic turn of phrase. The sacrifice, as anyone accustomed to the Book of Common Prayer would know, is praise. God receives the poet’s praise, and thus his very self in the morning.

The next two stanzas, rather unusually, begin with the same line and question: “My God, what is a heart?” In truth, the “heart” is the same as the “morning-soul”, which is why this is the direction the poem takes. The fifth verse continues that meditation, only using the word “estate”. In the second stanza Herbert describes  the heart by asking if it is a number of no-flesh things, a cascade of similies. The third stanza reaches the most valuable and spiritual valuation of the heart, that by God’s own self. Why does the Divine concern itself so much with the attention of humans? It makes sense, as the next stanza points out, that humans should praise God, even though they do not do it always, but pay more attention to the Creation rather than the Creator. In the final stanza the poet prays that the new light of the day will show both Creation and Creator, and that by this revelation the poet may ascend to the Divine.

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These days when I wake up I grab the cell phone first thing in the morning, and are immediately greeted with notices of messages, Twitter alerts, Facebook posts, and notifications of articles in some on-line journals I subscribe to. This is the attention I pay to Creation. It usually takes me another twenty minutes – after the dog has been fed and let out and come back in, the coffee has been brewed, and personal necessities attended to – that I finally begin to “make a match” with God for the day. I do get there, but I am very good at not looking at the beauty of the day first thing in the morning. Perhaps, as we let go of things in Lent and take on new disciplines, I should first begin with a word of praise and thanksgiving, even a short one, and in seeing the light, greet its maker.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
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2 Responses to George Herbert’s Morning Prayer: “Mattins”

  1. Pingback: Enclosed in the Ebony Box: George Herbert’s “Even-song” | The Island Parson

  2. Kathleen von Känel says:

    Thank you so much for your reflections on Herbert’s poems.

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