The primary reason for this article is to make those who do not know of the prayers written by Jane Austen. Below are some links to the full text of her prayers. The comments that follow are mere pedestrian commentary and do not hold a candle to the beauty and sublimity of her prayerful words.
These prayers were probably written when Jane was a young woman, perhaps even in her teenage years. They are all “night” prayers, said at the end of day before retiring.
Decades ago, good catholic elementary school students learned that prayer had four major themes or goals: adoration, reparation, thanksgiving, and petition. Jane’s prayers have each of these aspects.
God is addressed as God in all of her prayers. For example: “Father of Heaven,” “Almighty God,” “Heavenly Father,” “Gracious Father,” and “Almighty Father.” She tells God “We are helpless and dependent” and that “We bless thee.”
Again and again her prayers mention sins, sorrow for them, and what we today would call a “firm purpose of amendment.” For example, from her prayer designated “1”:
“Look with mercy on the sins we have this day committed and in mercy make us feel them deeply, that our repentance may be sincere, and our resolutions steadfast of endeavoring against the commission of such in the future.” From Prayer 2: “Pardon oh! God the offences of the past day . . . Pardon Oh God! Whatever thou hast seen amiss in us.”
Every one of her prayers thanks God for a variety of gifts and blessings. In Prayer 1 she says: “Give us a thankful sense of the blessings in which we live, of the many comforts of our lot.” In Prayer 2 she says: “May the comforts of every day be thankfully felt by us;” and in Prayer 3 she says: “We thank thee with all our hearts for every gracious dispensation, for all the blessing that have attended our lives, for every hour of safety, health and peace, of domestic comfort and innocent enjoyment.”
Jane’s prayers are full of petitions. “Be gracious to our necessities,” she says in Prayer 1, and then goes on to mention the sick and afflicted, all those traveling, orphans, widows, captives and prisoners. In Prayer 3 she asks: “ . . . graciously preserve us. For all whom we love and value, for every friend and connection, we equally pray.” She ends Prayer 3 with this request:
“More particularly do we pray for the safety and welfare of our own family and friends wheresoever dispersed, beseeching thee to avert them from all material and lasting evil of body or mind.”
Whether or not Jane subscribed to a “sola fide” approach to salvation, her prayers indicate that she was fully aware that we sin and that by sinning we could lose eternal salvation. In Prayer 1 she says: “Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own hearts, . . . and the danger to our own souls;” and she asks that “we may not, by our own neglect, throw away the salvation thou hast given us.” She ends Prayer 3 by saying: “. . . and may we by the assistance of thy holy spirit so conduct ourselves on earth as to secure an eternity of happiness with each other in thy heavenly kingdom.”
Again and again, in all her prayers, Jane appeals to and asks for God’s mercy: “Look with mercy;” “quicken our sense of thy mercy;” “Be thou merciful;” “Have mercy Oh Gracious Father!” and “May thy mercy be extended over all mankind.” The last line of her last prayer, Prayer 3, ends with: “Grant this most merciful Father, for the sake of our blessed savior.”
Prayer 1 has a poignant petition directed to God’s mercy:
“Above all other blessings oh! God, for ourselves, and our fellow-creatures, we implore thee to quicken our sense of thy mercy in the redemption of the world.”
Various scholars and students of Jane Austen’s writings have noted that her prayers show a reliance on the words and thoughts of the Book Of Common Prayer. This book was used for the church services she attended.
Originally prepared by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, after the protestant revolt against the Church, The Book Of Common Prayer contained the words for the new liturgy of the Anglican communion after it separated from the Church. This included morning prayer and evening prayer. Cranmer, no doubt, knew the Church’s evening prayers, including prayers for the hours of Vespers and Compline. It is not surprising, then, that Jane, raised with the Book Of Common Prayer, would include in her evening prayers words, thoughts, and sentiments which can be traced back to the Church’s text for the hour of Compline.
Compline includes the hymn “Te Lucis Ante Terminum” which has these words: “May no bad dreams, no nightly phantasms come near us. Control our enemy that our bodies not be polluted.” Another Compline hymn asks this: “Save us, Lord, while we are awake and vigilant, and care for us while we are asleep.” Near the end of Compline, this prayer is said: “Visit, we beseech thee, Lord, where we live and repel from it all the traps of the enemy. Let thy holy angels live here with us.”
These themes of God’s protection through the night from evil are in all of Jane’s prayers. In Prayer 1 she says: “Be gracious . . . and guard us . . .from evil this night.” In Prayer 2 she says: “To thy goodness we commend ourselves this night beseeching thy protection of us through it darkness and dangers . . . may we be equally united in thy merciful protection this night” – which echoes the “In manus tuas Domine, commendo spiritum meum” of Compline – “Into your hands, Lord, I comment my spirit.” Prayer 3 asks God “keep us Oh! Heavenly Father from evil this night.”
All of Jane’s prayers are family prayers. They were most probably said with her family gathered together. They thanked God for “domestic comfort.” They sought His care for “our own family.”
Jane was raised in a large, religious family. She had siblings, six brothers and one sister. Her father was an Anglican priest and, later in life, two of her brothers also pursued a vocation to the ministry. She was a religious person and went to church regularly. Daily prayer was part of her life. It is very probable that in the evening the whole Austen family gathered for prayer and that Jane’s prayers, among others, were heard, if not also said in unison, by all present. Thus the prayers use “we” and “us” rather than “I” and “me.”
Timeless like so much of what she has to day, Jane’s prayers can be said today and can – with a few “thees,” “thous,”and “thys” changed to “you” and “yours” – be prayers for our time.
Links to Jane’s prayers:
Copyright © Guy McClung 2016