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PRAYER AND PROPHECY

ELEMENTS OF SIR THOMAS BROWNE'S SPIRITUALITY

KEVIN FAULKNER, NORWICH, ENGLAND

he seventeenth-century Christian mystic, physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) is best remembered for his spiritual testament and self-portrait Religio Medici (1643) in which the newly-qualified doctor meditates upon the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity and reveals the enigma of his personality. Browne however retains an ambiguous place in the history of Christian spirituality, but as the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung observed, 'The creative mystic was ever a cross for the church, but it is to him that we owe what is best in humanity'.[1]

 Browne’s relationship to the Christian act of  prayer  is embodied in Religio Medici  in which he confessed-

I cannot contentedly frame a prayer for myself in particular, without a catalogue for my friends; nor request a happiness wherein my sociable disposition doth not desire the fellowship of my neighbour. I never hear the toll of a passing bell, though in my mirth, without my prayers and best wishes for the departing spirit. I cannot go to cure the body of my patient, but I forget my profession, and call unto God for his soul. I cannot see one say his prayers, but, instead of imitating him, I fall into supplication for him, who perhaps is no more to me than a common nature: and if God hath vouchsafed an ear to my supplications, there are surely many happy that never saw me, and enjoy the blessing of mine unknown devotions. To pray for enemies, that is, for their salvation, is no harsh precept, but the practice of our daily and ordinary devotions. I cannot believe the story of the Italian; our bad wishes and uncharitable desires proceed no further than this life; it is the devil, and the uncharitable votes of hell, that desire our misery in the world to come.[2]
Prayer was clearly a quintessential component of Doctor Browne’s Christian Faith. In his commonplace notebooks, which were never intended for publication, the full extent by which he adhered to Saint Paul’s exhortation to pray unceasingly

 (I Thess. v.17) is revealed in the form of his private adviso.

To be sure that no day pass without calling upon GOD in a solemn formed prayer, seven times within the compass thereof; that is, in the morning, and at night, and five times between; taken up long ago from the example of David (Psalm 118 v.164) and Daniel  (6.v.10) and a compunction and shame that I had omitted it so long, when I heedfully read of the custom of the Mahometans to pray five times in the day.

To pray and magnify GOD in the night, and my dark bed, when I could not sleep; to have short utterances whenever I awaked; and when the four o’clock bell awoke me, or my first discovery of the light, to say the collect of our liturgy,

Eternal GOD Who hast safely brought me to the beginning of this day .

To pray in all places where privacy inviteth; in any house, highway, or street; and to know no street or passage in this City which may not witness that I have not forgot GOD and my Saviour in it; and that no parish or town, where I have been, may not say the like.

To take occasion of praying upon the sight of any church, which I see or pass by, as I ride about. Since the necessities of the sick, and unavoidable diversions of my profession, keep me often from church, yet to take all possible care that I might never miss Sacraments upon their accustomed days.

To pray daily and particularly for sick patients, and in general for others, wheresoever, howsoever, under whose care soever; and at the entrance into the house of the sick, to say The peace of GOD be in this place.

After a sermon, to make a thanksgiving, and a desire a blessing, and to pray for the minister.

In tempestuous weather, lightning and thunder, either night or day, to pray for GOD’S merciful protection upon all men, and His mercy upon their souls and goods.

Upon sight of beautiful persons, to bless GOD in his creatures, to pray for the beauty of their souls, and to enrich them with inward graces to be answerable unto the outward; upon sight of deformed persons, to send them inward grace, and enrich their souls, and give them the beauty of the resurrection. [3]

In conjunction with prayer there is another lesser-known element of Browne’s Christian spirituality, that of prophecy. Prophecy has been defined as a "miracle of knowledge, a declaration or description or representation of something future, beyond the power of human wisdom to foresee, discern, or conjecture." The great prophecy which runs like a golden chain throughout the Old Testament is that of the coming of the Messiah; its specific purpose was to perpetuate faith in His coming and to prepare the world for that event.  Far from being discouraged by early Christians, prophecy was endorsed as valid to the Christian Faith . Not only does the Old Testament  abound with prophecies, but Saint Peter and Saint Paul also endorsed prophecy within certain important  provisos, ( 1 Cor.12 v.10 , 2 Peter 19-21) for Christ himself made many prophecies (see Matt. 10: v.23-24; 11: v.23; 19: v.28; 21: v.43, 44; Chapter 24; 25: v.31-46; 26:v.17-35, v.46, v. 64; Mark 9:v.1; 10: v. 29-30; 11:1-6, v. 14; Chapter 13; 14:12-31,v. 42 and 62;).[4]

In Browne’s time during the dark days of the abolition of the Monarchy and the Protectorate of Cromwell, when it was far from certain that the social Order would ever be restored, it must have seemed to many Royalists and devout Anglicans that the days of the Apocalypse were close approaching. In this atmosphere of Endzeitpsychosis and uncertainty, Browne wrote and published his ‘twin’ Discourses of 1658 Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus.

The Garden of Cyrus has in modern times been viewed as none other than a work of prophecy. It was the American scholar Frank Huntley who first interpreted Cyrus as work of Christian Millenarianism and as a work which transcends England and the seventeenth century; to embrace God’s preconceived plan for His creation, which will be carried into effect no-one knows when. (Mark 13:32) Huntley likened Cyrus as a work of prophecy, comparable to the great work of prophecy in the New Testament, the Book of Revelations, for the following five reasons. Firstly, like the Book of Revelations, Cyrus engages in synchronism, because it too cites epochs of time which overlap and coincide with each; secondly, for its usage of  typology, that is, the doctrine that events and people in the Old Testament are prefigured in the New Testament; thirdly, for its repeated usage of visual imagery of objects and artefacts; fourthly for its frequent numerology; and finally, for its excess; prophetic writing often being characterised by an overwhelming multiplicity, as though, speaking for God, the prophet imitates the extravagance of His creation.[5]

Indeed the very title of the Discourse betrays its prophetic intent . Not only is King Cyrus (580-529 BCE) mentioned by Greek Historians such as Xenophon and Herodotus, but also by the Prophets Ezra (6: v.3) and Isaiah (44: v.28) in the Old Testament. The benevolent and fair ruler who founded Persia is remembered for his tolerance and respect towards the religious beliefs and cultural traditions of other races. These  qualities earned him the reverence and homage of all the people over whom he ruled. King Cyrus had no thought of forcing conquered people into a single mould, and had the wisdom to leave unchanged the institution of each kingdom he attached to the Persian Crown. In 537 BCE he allowed more than 40,000 Jews to leave Babylon and return to Palestine. This step was in line with his policy to bring peace to Mankind. The Jews regarded him as 'Law-giver' and as 'the anointed of the Lord'. To the Greeks King Cyrus was a model ruler and an ideal 'philosopher King' who, not unlike the mythic 'thrice greatest' Hermes Trismegistus, possessed the triple merits of Warrior-Ruler, Priest and Philosopher. Cyrus was also reputed to know the names and faces of all his army, and this mnemonic gift, along with his humanism and tolerance, may well have been the inspiration for Browne to name his Discourse after him. Browne’s choice of Cyrus for the title of his Discourse may also be interpreted as the embodiment of  his  own ideal of the perfect King, at a time historically, when the English Parliament had abolished the rights of Kings. It is also perhaps of significance that whilst Cyrus in the Bible was the enlightened King who allowed the Israelites to return home, the Lord Protectorate Oliver Cromwell in 1654 invited members of the Jewish community to settle in England.

Even though it may have seemed to many during the 1650’s decade that the Social order and laws of England had for all time been turned upside-down, with the execution of King Charles and the abolition of Monarchy, Browne was able to reassure his readers and prophetically declare at the apotheosis of his mystical Discourse The Garden of Cyrus -

All things began in order, so shall they end, so shall they begin again according to the ordainer of Order and the mystical mathematicks of the City of Heaven.
Four months after the publication of the Diptych Discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus the Lord Protector Cromwell died. There followed a short period of  ineffectual rule by his son Richard. Then  the time was ripe for Charles II to return to British shores and the Restoration of Monarchy to be established.

It was sometime during the Restoration era that Doctor Browne M. D., now Sir Thomas, following his knighting by King Charles II in 1671, was introduced by a correspondent to the prophecies of Nostradamus. The prophecies of Michael Nostradamus (1493-1556) enjoyed a renewed vogue when printed in England in 1668, immediately after years of plague and the Great Fire of London. Ever since their first appearance the Lyons physician’s  verses, written in an antiquated French now scarcely comprehensible, have been used to justify all manner of world events.  Sir Thomas replied to his correspondent with these terse words, ‘Sir, I take no pleasure in Prophecies so hardly intelligible, and pointing at future things from a pretended spirit of Divination’.  Nonetheless he could not resist penning  his own ‘prophecy’  entitled – ‘A Prophecy concerning the future state of several Nations' [6] in which he parodies the quatrains of Nostradamus. Certain lines of this ‘prophecy’  may however be considered of relevance to present-day world events (Feb. 2003)

When America shall cease to send forth its treasure
But employ it at home for American Pleasure.
Sir Thomas, ever ready to lend a hand to his reader, supplied an amplification of each  couplet of his verse, appended-
 'That is, when America shall be better civilized, new policised and divided between great Princes, it may come to pass that they will no longer suffer their Treasure of Gold and Silver to be sent out to maintain the Luxury of Europe and other parts: but rather employ it to their own advantages, in great Exploits and Undertakings, magnificent structure, Wars or Expeditions of their own.'
Whilst of the following  lines -
When the new World shall the old invade
Nor count them their Lords but their fellows in Trade.
he stated-
'That is, when America shall be so well peopled, civilized and divided into Kingdoms, they are likely to have so little regard of their Originals, as to acknowledge no subjection to them: they may also have a distinct commerce between themselves, or but independently with those of Europe, and may hostile and pyratically assault them, even as the Greek and Roman Colonies after a long time dealt with their Original Countries.'
All of which is rather remarkable for the 1670’s, when America was still very much a fledgling colony, particularly the phrase, ‘American Pleasure’, for a nation which would have the pursuit of happiness embedded in its Constitution. Browne’s ‘prophecy’ is in reality however simply based upon, ‘conjectural foundation’, that is, astute guess-work from contemplation of the globe and of geographical resources, in conjunction with an awareness of the cyclical nature of the fortunes of  nations and peoples throughout history. Indeed Browne concluded his ‘prophecy’ to his correspondent with the words- 'But this is Conjecture and not Prophecy : and so I know you will take it.'[7] ; perhaps with Saint Paul’s famous words in mind, ‘And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understanding of all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not Charity, I am nothing’ ( I Corinthians 13: 2).  And in fact the second part of his Religio Medici devotes itself to many thoughtful passages upon the Christian virtue of Charity.

Browne’s ability to ‘predict’ the future  was testified by his ‘learned and faithful friend Mr. John Whitefoot, Rector of Heigham and very deserving clerk of the convocation of Norfolk’, who recollected of him-

‘Tho’ he were no prophet, nor son of a prophet, yet in that faculty which comes nearest to it, he excelled, i.e. the stochastick,( the faculty of conjecturing)  wherein he was seldom mistaken, as to future events, as well publick as private; but not apt to discover any presages or superstition’[8]
But maybe it is one of his least-known works, a Latin exercise depicting a sea-battle between the Romans and Greeks, written for the amusement and instruction of his youngest son, Midshipman Thomas whilst at sea, that the source of Browne’s ‘gift of prophecy’ is succinctly encountered;  none other than an understanding of the negative aspects of human morality, which, whether in times past, as recorded in ancient history, or indeed the present day, has altered little. Sir Thomas was aware that prophecy relies upon both a close union and ‘mystical’ relationship to God and a deep understanding of human nature; these qualities enabled him to morally educate his youngest son at the conclusion of his Naumachia or Sea-battle that-
The cause of this war was that of all wars, excess of prosperity. As wealth arises spirits rise, and lust and greed of power appear; thence men lose their sense of moderation, look with distaste on the prosperity of others, revolve disquiet in their mind, and throw over all settlement, for fear lest their enemies’ wealth be firmly established, they put their own to risk; and finally (as happens in human affairs) fall into slavery when they seek to impose it, and earnestly courting good fortune, experience disaster.[9]
Shortly after receiving this Latin exercise by his loving father, young Midshipman Thomas was reported by the Admiralty as lost in action during the Anglo-Dutch naval wars. It is a sombre thought that Sir Thomas Browne’s personal loss of a son, by one of humanity’s greatest evils, namely war, continues centuries later, to be a cause of bereavement to many of family members and loved ones; and the most serious threat to Mankind’s survival. As in Browne’s day, so too in ours, regarding present-day world events, we too must heed the teachings of  the Evangelists, to watch and pray. (Matthew 26: v.41, Mark 13: v. 33 and Luke 21: v.36).

Henry Pegram’s 1905 statue
Haymarket, Norwich

NOTES

1 Carl Jung, Mysterium Coniuntionis, in Collected Works (London, Routledge, Kegan and Paul, 1955-56), vol. 14, para 531, cap. 'Adam and Eve', p. 376.
2Religio Medici, Part 2: Para 6.
3Collected Works, ed. Simon Wilkins, 4 vols. 1835-36. Vol. 4.
4 CD-ROM Life Bible 1988-99.
5 Frank Huntley, '"Well Sir Thomas?" : Oration to commemorate the tercentenary of the death of Sir Thomas Browne', Norwich 1982.  Published, British Medical Journal, 285 (3 July 1982).
6 Miscellaneous Tract 12 in Collected Works, ed. Sir Geoffrey Keynes, 4 vols (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), Vol. 4.
7 Ibid, Tract 12.
8 First Edition, Christian Morals, London, 1716, ed. Archdeacon John Jeffrey of Norwich. Quoted by Doctor Samuel Johnson in his biography of Browne prefixed to Browne’s Christian Morals, 1756.
9 From the Latin of Naumachia, the Sea-battle, in Collected Works, ed. Keynes, 4 vols.


See also Kevin Faulkner, Spiritual and Literary Kingship between Dame Julian and Sir Thomas Browne


 
JULIAN OF NORWICH, HER SHOWING OF LOVE AND ITS CONTEXTS ©1997-2015 JULIA BOLTON HOLLOWAY  || JULIAN OF NORWICH  || SHOWING OF LOVE || HER TEXTS || HER SELF || ABOUT HER TEXTS || BEFORE JULIAN || HER CONTEMPORARIES || AFTER JULIAN || JULIAN IN OUR TIME ||  ST BIRGITTA OF SWEDEN  ||  BIBLE AND WOMEN || EQUALLY IN GOD'S IMAGE  || MIRROR OF SAINTS || BENEDICTINISM || THE CLOISTER  || ITS SCRIPTORIUM  || AMHERST MANUSCRIPT || PRAYER || CATALOGUE AND PORTFOLIO (HANDCRAFTS, BOOKS ) || BOOK REVIEWS || BIBLIOGRAPHY ||