A Spiritual and Devotional Classic

Joel Stephen Williams

Lancelot Andrewes was born in London in 1555 and studied at Cambridge. He was known as a very serious student and gained a working knowledge of twenty languages. He had few, if any, hobbies, except that he enjoyed taking walks and observing the wonders of nature. He was a teacher at Cambridge, a court preacher, and a royal advisor. He became Dean of Westminster under Queen Elizabeth and was successively Bishop of Chichester, Ely and Winchester under King James. Andrewes was a man of exceptional scholarship, and he was known as one of the great preachers of his day. Time has not enhanced his reputation as his preaching style has become even more antiquated with each new generation. Andrewes was chairman of the Westminster Company which translated Genesis through Second Kings for the King James Version, although he still used the Latin Vulgate and the English Geneva Bible himself even after 1611.

More significant for our study than Andrewes's scholarship or preaching ability was his exceptional character and his devotional life. Andrewes was highly esteemed by many famous people of his age. While his life's record was not flawless, he was a man of great piety. More than anything else Andrewes was a man of prayer who typically spent five hours a day in prayer and devotion. When visiting a man in prison, Andrewes jokingly said: "You are most happy. The solitary and contemplative life I hold the most blessed life." While that statement was expressed with a good measure of satire to provoke self-examination on the part of the man in prison, there was much truth that Andrewes loved the "solitary and contemplative life." Yet, he never withdrew from public duties, and hecarried on those obligations to the end.

The Preces Privatae (Private Devotions) was Andrewes's personal book of devotion and prayer. It was never designed for publication and was not published until twenty-two years after his death. It was written mostly in Greek and Latin with a little Hebrew. The first translator of the Preces Privatae said that the original manuscript was "slubbered with his pious hand and watered with his penitential tears." A few personal notes appear in the book such as prayers on behalf of churches or acquaintances, but these are few and far between. These personal references do not mar the book for use by others, but they are reminders that this is a book of Private Devotions. Many editions and translations of this very private book appeared in the 1600s. A renewed interest in it developed in the 1800s.

The main bulk of the Preces Privatae consists of morning and evening prayers plus prayers for a whole week. There is also an expanded version of the Lord's Prayer. Other devotions and prayers focus on penitence, the faith, hope, charity, praise, and so forth. These prayers and meditational thoughts consist mostly of quotations from the Scriptures woven together in a colorful tapestry. Also there are many quotes from Greek and Latin Christian writings.

Andrewes arranged his own private book of prayer and devotion so that some prayers are listed word for word as he would pray them. Others are more of a sketch or an outline which would guide his thoughts. For example, in an intercessory prayer he listed numerous subjects for his concern:

"Infants, children, youths, young men, grown men, old men, them that are in extreme age, the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, prisoners, strangers, those without friends; the sick in soul, or body, weakhearted, those that are past hope; those in prison and bonds, those condemned to death; orphans, widows, strangers, those that travel by land, by water; those with child, those nursing children, those in solitude."

In another beautiful prayer Andrewes asked God to be with him in various ways: "Within to strengthen, without to preserve, over to shelter, beneath to support, before to direct, behind to bring back, and round about to fortify."

One prayer called "The Dial" goes through the various hours of the day, speaking of different events in the life of Christ. Andrewes related them to his own spiritual growth. Here are three samples:

"Thou who at the sixth hour and on the sixth day didst nail the sins of the world with Thyself on the cross: blot out the handwriting of our sins which is against us and taking it out of the way save us....Thou who at the ninth hour for us sinners and for our sins didst taste of death: mortify in us our earthly members and whatsoever is contrary to thy will, and save us....Thou who at eventide didst will to be taken down from the cross and buried in a tomb: take away our sins from us and bury them in thy sepulchre, covering with good works whatsoever we have committed ill, and save us."

In a beautiful prayer to be said upon waking in the morning, Andrewes associated the light of morning with light in the soul:

"Thou who sendest forth the light, createst the morning, makest the sun to rise on the good and on the evil: enlighten the blindness of our minds with the knowledge of the truth: lift Thou up the light of thy countenance upon us, that in thy light we may see light, and, at the last, in the light of grace the light of glory."

A delightful evening prayer was used by Andrewes when going to bed:

"Let me think upon thy Name in the night season, and keep thy law: let the evening prayer go up unto Thee, and thy pity come down unto us, O Thou which givest songs in the night, which makest the outgoings of the morning and evening to praise Thee, which givest thy beloved wholesome sleep."

Many of the prayers in this manual of private devotions are penitential. This is not reflective of a bad life or an evil soul on the part of Andrewes, but rather it is typical of those great souls who are humble and sensitive to imperfections on our part and to God's infinite holiness. Even before giving praise to God in one prayer, Andrewes confessed:

"But for me, O Lord, sinning and not repenting, and so utterly unworthy, it were more becoming to lie prostrate before Thee and with weeping and groaning to ask pardon for my sins, than with polluted mouth to praise Thee."

As an example of the smooth combination of various citations, note how Andrewes joined five different Scriptures in one brief prayer to be used before a meal:

"Thou that givest food to all flesh, which feedest the young ravens that cry unto Thee, and hast nourished us from our youth up: fill our hearts with food and gladness and establish our heart with thy grace" (Ps. 136:25; 147:9; Isa. 1:2; Acts 14:17; Heb. 13:9).

Enduring failing health in his last years, Andrewes took the death of his brother as a sign that his own time in this world was short. Already a man of extraordinary prayer habits, he spent even more time in prayer near the end. His friend John Buckeridge said: "He spent all his time in prayer; and his prayer-book, when he was private, was seldom seen out of his hands; and in the time of his fever and last sickness, besides the often prayers which were read to him...he did...continually pray to himself."

Andrewes died on the 25th of September in 1626. The following prayer would have been typical for Andrewes in his later years:

"Gotten past the day I give Thee thanks, O Lord. The evening draweth nigh: make it bright. There is an evening, as of the day, so also of life: the evening of life is old age: old age hath overtaken me: make it bright. Cast me not off in the time of age: forsake me not when my strength faileth. Abide with me, O Lord, for even now it is towards evening with me, and the day is far spent of this travailling life. Let thy strength be perfected in my weakness."

Certainly the Preces Privatae of Lancelot Andrewes is one of the great spiritual and devotional classics of Christian literature.

Selected Bibliography

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