Marie-Elsa Bragg

Article for The Church Times on A Prayer by Queen Elizabeth I

Lord God,.. give me, Thy handmaid, a teachable heart,
so that I may know what is acceptable in Thy sight;
send from heaven the Spirit of Thy wisdom
and rule my heart with its guidance,
Amen.
(Elizabeth Collected Works, Ed: Marcus, Mueller, Rose, University of Chicago Press, 2000, P317)
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This is part of a longer Latin prayer found in a miniature prayer book written by Elizabeth I between 1579-82. I have found it to be a continual companion and guide to prayer, and have carried a copy with me for over 12 years.
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The beginning reminds me of my place in relationship to both life and God. That of a ‘handmaid’. So that the difficult things I encounter, which inevitably pull my focus down onto them alone, lost in worry or stung with the feeling of helplessness, are put into the context of my position as a servant. Here my face is lifted and, amid life, I am asked to look towards the God whom I serve.
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The moment I take my place as handmaid, I am reminded of the others kneeling with me. Not least of course Mother Mary who describes the experience of a handmaid so vividly in her encounter with God through Gabriel. She reminds to not be so afraid to kneel alongside all women who have knelt before me; that I am not alone.
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The request which then comes for a ‘teachable heart’ invites me further into relationship. When I think that Elizabeth I wrote this request in the midst of continual threat to her life and the difficulties of rule, I marvel at her courage. Once reminded that my heart must be focused on God, I am shown that it is not simply a surrender of responsibility but a relationship which asks for me to change and learn. And for that I must attend regularly and listen. The word heart, of course, had a different interpretation at the time of Elizabeth. Along with love, it was also the place of understanding and will - all that is needed for a dedicated student.
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And then the words ‘acceptable in they sight’ bring me further into partnership. They remind me of marriage vows where we accept each other and the life which will follow, in the sight of God. And because of the hand that wrote the prayer, I am also reminded of the coronation service where the future sovereign kneels in front of the Altar and takes her vow on behalf of us, so that we are shown how to kneel, each one of us, with the same dedication.
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In the heart of Westminster Abbey is the shrine of Edward the Confessor, often called ‘The gateway of Heaven’, where Edward’s full remains have been a place of pilgrimage since 1066 when he died. Now placed behind the high altar by Henry III in his Gothic revision of the Abbey, the shrine has been visited by most kings and Queens within the coronation ceremony, after they are crowned, for a private moment of prayer. Here, after passing through one of the two panel doors behind the high Altar, they surrender St Edward’ crown, the golden cloak, Orb and sceptre and find a place where, as the rest of us must, they surrender their will to God privately. Because there we are all equal in front of God, and we must all have that humble place to pray in, no matter what calling we have to fulfil. For a soon to be Queen or King, in the very heart of their coronation ceremony I expect it is a moment of final and complete surrender.
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The words towards the end of the prayer ‘send from heaven the Spirit of Thy wisdom’ now show me that to surrender is to be a student of the divine. Many pilgrims over the centuries have knelt deep inside arches under the shrine of Edward the Confessor for guidance, healing, support. The old arches can give the sensation of a marriage of worlds as we shuffle in and kneel inside old stone, so close to silence. And there, inside the shrine facing east, behind the high altar, the strange breeze that can occasionally come into still air reminds me that t’s from the resurrected body of Christ that ‘wisdom …goes about seeking those worthy of her and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.’ (wisdom 6:16) By the end of the prayer I find that kneeling where others knelt before me is not about place but about community undivided by time. It is one of devotion and discipline. Of listening and growing with life experience. It is a community of students that walk the honest prayer of a pilgrim.
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