Our communion hymn this week is “God be in my head” (Hymnal 1982 #694), and it's short and simple enough to quote in its entirety:
God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.
This is an old English prayer, first found in the Sarum Primer of 1514. “Primer” is the term for an English-language “book of hours,” a type of medieval illuminated manuscript containing Christian devotions to be used throughout the hours of the day. Books of hours contained simplified versions of the prayer rituals used in monasteries, thereby allowing laypeople the opportunity to incorporate elements of monasticism into their daily lives. This particular text, sometimes called the “Sarum Prayer” because of its provenance, quickly became quite popular; in 1627, it opens John Cosin's prominent Collection of Private Devotions, and the prayer also showed up in France in similar collections.
The tune used in the hymnal, Lytlington, is the work of English composer Sir Sydney H. Nicholson and has a repetitive simplicity suitable to the character of the text. This text is also a popular choice for anthem settings: the most famous (at least according to the hymnal companion) is the setting by Sir Walford Davies, and I remember singing Andrew Carter's anthem setting in my very first year of church choir. Anthems from my first year of choir tend to stick with me – I was an impressionable ten-year-old – and so this prayer holds a special place in my heart. For a while last year, I was regularly praying with the use of an Anglican rosary; the rosary broke in December, and I really need to get a new one, because it was a great devotional exercise. Unlike with Catholic rosaries, there's not really a set way to pray an Anglican rosary, and the individual or group has the opportunity to invent their own cycle of prayers to accompany the beads. I chose “God be in my head” for my opening prayer. Leaving the house in the morning, holding my rosary's invitatory bead in my left hand, I would recite the prayer silently to myself and touch each body part as the text named it: head, eyes, mouth, over my heart, and finally crossing myself for the last line. The physical motions of this ritual were wonderfully centering; moreover, I love the way this prayer invites God into every part of our bodies, reminding us that God should be ever-present and in control of each aspect of our daily existence. This prayer served me well as an introduction to my daily devotions, just as it did for medieval users of the Sarum Primer – I hope it can do the same for you.