The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter LVI

Chapter LVI. Of prayers. Edit

I propose formless and undetermined fancies, like those who publish
doubtful questions, to be after a disputed upon in the schools, not to
establish truth but to seek it; and I submit them to the judgments of
those whose office it is to regulate, not my writings and actions only,
but moreover my very thoughts. Let what I here set down meet with
correction or applause, it shall be of equal welcome and utility to me,
myself beforehand condemning as absurd and impious, if anything shall be
found, through ignorance or inadvertency, couched in this rhapsody,
contrary to the holy resolutions and prescriptions of the Catholic
Apostolic and Roman Church, into which I was born and in which I will
die. And yet, always submitting to the authority of their censure, which
has an absolute power over me, I thus rashly venture at everything, as in
treating upon this present subject.

I know not if or no I am wrong, but since, by a particular favour of the
divine bounty, a certain form of prayer has been prescribed and dictated
to us, word by word, from the mouth of God Himself, I have ever been of
opinion that we ought to have it in more frequent use than we yet have;
and if I were worthy to advise, at the sitting down to and rising from
our tables, at our rising from and going to bed, and in every particular
action wherein prayer is used, I would that Christians always make use of
the Lord's Prayer, if not alone, yet at least always. The Church may
lengthen and diversify prayers, according to the necessity of our
instruction, for I know very well that it is always the same in substance
and the same thing: but yet such a privilege ought to be given to that
prayer, that the people should have it continually in their mouths; for
it is most certain that all necessary petitions are comprehended in it,
and that it is infinitely proper for all occasions. 'Tis the only prayer
I use in all places and conditions, and which I still repeat instead of
changing; whence it also happens that I have no other so entirely by
heart as that.

It just now came into my mind, whence it is we should derive that error
of having recourse to God in all our designs and enterprises, to call Him
to our assistance in all sorts of affairs, and in all places where our
weakness stands in need of support, without considering whether the
occasion be just or otherwise; and to invoke His name and power, in what
state soever we are, or action we are engaged in, howsoever vicious. He
is indeed, our sole and unique protector, and can do all things for us:
but though He is pleased to honour us with this sweet paternal alliance,
He is, notwithstanding, as just as He is good and mighty; and more often
exercises His justice than His power, and favours us according to that,
and not according to our petitions.

Plato in his Laws, makes three sorts of belief injurious to the gods;
"that there are none; that they concern not themselves about our affairs;
that they never refuse anything to our vows, offerings, and sacrifices."
The first of these errors (according to his opinion, never continued
rooted in any man from his infancy to his old age); the other two, he
confesses, men might be obstinate in.

God's justice and His power are inseparable; 'tis in vain we invoke His
power in an unjust cause. We are to have our souls pure and clean, at
that moment at least wherein we pray to Him, and purified from all
vicious passions; otherwise we ourselves present Him the rods wherewith
to chastise us; instead of repairing anything we have done amiss, we
double the wickedness and the offence when we offer to Him, to whom we
are to sue for pardon, an affection full of irreverence and hatred.
Which makes me not very apt to applaud those whom I observe to be so
frequent on their knees, if the actions nearest to the prayer do not give
me some evidence of amendment and reformation:

              "Si, nocturnus adulter,
               Tempora Santonico velas adoperta cucullo."

     ["If a night adulterer, thou coverest thy head with a Santonic
     cowl."—Juvenal, Sat., viii. 144.—The Santones were the people
     who inhabited Saintonge in France, from whom the Romans derived the
     use of hoods or cowls covering the head and face.]

And the practice of a man who mixes devotion with an execrable life seems
in some sort more to be condemned than that of a man conformable to his
own propension and dissolute throughout; and for that reason it is that
our Church denies admittance to and communion with men obstinate and
incorrigible in any notorious wickedness. We pray only by custom and for
fashion's sake; or rather, we read or pronounce our prayers aloud, which
is no better than an hypocritical show of devotion; and I am scandalised
to see a man cross himself thrice at the Benedicite, and as often at
Grace (and the more, because it is a sign I have in great veneration and
continual use, even when I yawn), and to dedicate all the other hours of
the day to acts of malice, avarice, and injustice. One hour to God, the
rest to the devil, as if by composition and compensation. 'Tis a wonder
to see actions so various in themselves succeed one another with such an
uniformity of method as not to interfere nor suffer any alteration, even
upon the very confines and passes from the one to the other. What a
prodigious conscience must that be that can be at quiet within itself
whilst it harbours under the same roof, with so agreeing and so calm a
society, both the crime and the judge?

A man whose whole meditation is continually working upon nothing but
impurity which he knows to be so odious to Almighty God, what can he say
when he comes to speak to Him? He draws back, but immediately falls into
a relapse. If the object of divine justice and the presence of his Maker
did, as he pretends, strike and chastise his soul, how short soever the
repentance might be, the very fear of offending the Infinite Majesty
would so often present itself to his imagination that he would soon see
himself master of those vices that are most natural and vehement in him.
But what shall we say of those who settle their whole course of life upon
the profit and emolument of sins, which they know to be mortal? How many
trades and vocations have we admitted and countenanced amongst us, whose
very essence is vicious? And he that, confessing himself to me,
voluntarily told me that he had all his lifetime professed and practised
a religion, in his opinion damnable and contrary to that he had in his
heart, only to preserve his credit and the honour of his employments, how
could his courage suffer so infamous a confession? What can men say to
the divine justice upon this subject?

Their repentance consisting in a visible and manifest reparation, they
lose the colour of alleging it both to God and man. Are they so impudent
as to sue for remission without satisfaction and without penitence?
I look upon these as in the same condition with the first: but the
obstinacy is not there so easy to be overcome. This contrariety and
volubility of opinion so sudden, so violent, that they feign, are a kind
of miracle to me: they present us with the state of an indigestible agony
of mind.

It seemed to me a fantastic imagination in those who, these late years
past, were wont to reproach every man they knew to be of any
extraordinary parts, and made profession of the Catholic religion, that
it was but outwardly; maintaining, moreover, to do him honour forsooth,
that whatever he might pretend to the contrary he could not but in his
heart be of their reformed opinion. An untoward disease, that a man
should be so riveted to his own belief as to fancy that others cannot
believe otherwise than as he does; and yet worse, that they should
entertain so vicious an opinion of such great parts as to think any man
so qualified, should prefer any present advantage of fortune to the
promises of eternal life and the menaces of eternal damnation. They may
believe me: could anything have tempted my youth, the ambition of the
danger and difficulties in the late commotions had not been the least

It is not without very good reason, in my opinion, that the Church
interdicts the promiscuous, indiscreet, and irreverent use of the holy
and divine Psalms, with which the Holy Ghost inspired King David. We
ought not to mix God in our actions, but with the highest reverence and
caution; that poesy is too holy to be put to no other use than to
exercise the lungs and to delight our ears; it ought to come from the
conscience, and not from the tongue. It is not fit that a prentice in
his shop, amongst his vain and frivolous thoughts, should be permitted to
pass away his time and divert himself with such sacred things. Neither
is it decent to see the Holy Book of the holy mysteries of our belief
tumbled up and down a hall or a kitchen they were formerly mysteries, but
are now become sports and recreations. 'Tis a book too serious and too
venerable to be cursorily or slightly turned over: the reading of the
scripture ought to be a temperate and premeditated act, and to which men
should always add this devout preface, 'sursum corda', preparing even the
body to so humble and composed a gesture and countenance as shall
evidence a particular veneration and attention. Neither is it a book for
everyone to fist, but the study of select men set apart for that purpose,
and whom Almighty God has been pleased to call to that office and sacred
function: the wicked and ignorant grow worse by it. 'Tis, not a story to
tell, but a history to revere, fear, and adore. Are not they then
pleasant men who think they have rendered this fit for the people's
handling by translating it into the vulgar tongue? Does the
understanding of all therein contained only stick at words? Shall I
venture to say further, that by coming so near to understand a little,
they are much wider of the whole scope than before. A pure and simple
ignorance and wholly depending upon the exposition of qualified persons,
was far more learned and salutary than this vain and verbal knowledge,
which has only temerity and presumption.

And I do further believe that the liberty every one has taken to disperse
the sacred writ into so many idioms carries with it a great deal more of
danger than utility. The Jews, Mohammedans, and almost all other
peoples, have reverentially espoused the language wherein their mysteries
were first conceived, and have expressly, and not without colour of
reason, forbidden the alteration of them into any other. Are we assured
that in Biscay and in Brittany there are enough competent judges of this
affair to establish this translation into their own language? The
universal Church has not a more difficult and solemn judgment to make.
In preaching and speaking the interpretation is vague, free, mutable, and
of a piece by itself; so 'tis not the same thing.

One of our Greek historians age justly censures the he lived in, because
the secrets of the Christian religion were dispersed into the hands of
every mechanic, to expound and argue upon, according to his own fancy,
and that we ought to be much ashamed, we who by God's especial favour
enjoy the pure mysteries of piety, to suffer them to be profaned by the
ignorant rabble; considering that the Gentiles expressly forbad Socrates,
Plato, and the other sages to inquire into or so much as mention the
things committed to the priests of Delphi; and he says, moreover, that
the factions of princes upon theological subjects are armed not with zeal
but fury; that zeal springs from the divine wisdom and justice, and
governs itself with prudence and moderation, but degenerates into hatred
and envy, producing tares and nettles instead of corn and wine when
conducted by human passions. And it was truly said by another, who,
advising the Emperor Theodosius, told him that disputes did not so much
rock the schisms of the Church asleep, as it roused and animated
heresies; that, therefore, all contentions and dialectic disputations
were to be avoided, and men absolutely to acquiesce in the prescriptions
and formulas of faith established by the ancients. And the Emperor
Andronicus having overheard some great men at high words in his palace
with Lapodius about a point of ours of great importance, gave them so
severe a check as to threaten to cause them to be thrown into the river
if they did not desist. The very women and children nowadays take upon
them to lecture the oldest and most experienced men about the
ecclesiastical laws; whereas the first of those of Plato forbids them to
inquire so much as into the civil laws, which were to stand instead of
divine ordinances; and, allowing the old men to confer amongst themselves
or with the magistrate about those things, he adds, provided it be not in
the presence of young or profane persons.

A bishop has left in writing that at the other end of the world there is
an isle, by the ancients called Dioscorides, abundantly fertile in all
sorts of trees and fruits, and of an exceedingly healthful air; the
inhabitants of which are Christians, having churches and altars, only
adorned with crosses without any other images, great observers of fasts
and feasts, exact payers of their tithes to the priests, and so chaste,
that none of them is permitted to have to do with more than one woman in
his life—[What Osorius says is that these people only had one wife at a
time.]—as to the rest, so content with their condition, that environed
with the sea they know nothing of navigation, and so simple that they
understand not one syllable of the religion they profess and wherein they
are so devout: a thing incredible to such as do not know that the Pagans,
who are so zealous idolaters, know nothing more of their gods than their
bare names and their statues. The ancient beginning of 'Menalippus', a
tragedy of Euripides, ran thus:

               "O Jupiter! for that name alone
               Of what thou art to me is known."

I have also known in my time some men's writings found fault with for
being purely human and philosophical, without any mixture of theology;
and yet, with some show of reason, it might, on the contrary, be said
that the divine doctrine, as queen and regent of the rest, better keeps
her state apart, that she ought to be sovereign throughout, not
subsidiary and suffragan, and that, peradventure, grammatical,
rhetorical, logical examples may elsewhere be more suitably chosen, as
also the material for the stage, games, and public entertainments, than
from so sacred a matter; that divine reasons are considered with greater
veneration and attention by themselves, and in their own proper style,
than when mixed with and adapted to human discourse; that it is a fault
much more often observed that the divines write too humanly, than that
the humanists write not theologically enough. Philosophy, says St.
Chrysostom, has long been banished the holy schools, as an handmaid
altogether useless and thought unworthy to look, so much as in passing
by the door, into the sanctuary of the holy treasures of the celestial
doctrine; that the human way of speaking is of a much lower form and
ought not to adopt for herself the dignity and majesty of divine
eloquence. Let who will 'verbis indisciplinatis' talk of fortune,
destiny, accident, good and evil hap, and other suchlike phrases,
according to his own humour; I for my part propose fancies merely human
and merely my own, and that simply as human fancies, and separately
considered, not as determined by any decree from heaven, incapable of
doubt or dispute; matter of opinion, not matter of faith; things which I
discourse of according to my own notions, not as I believe, according to
God; after a laical, not clerical, and yet always after a very religious
manner, as children prepare their exercises, not to instruct but to be

And might it not be said, that an edict enjoining all people but such as
are public professors of divinity, to be very reserved in writing of
religion, would carry with it a very good colour of utility and justice
—and to me, amongst the rest peradventure, to hold my prating? I have
been told that even those who are not of our Church nevertheless amongst
themselves expressly forbid the name of God to be used in common
discourse, nor so much even by way of interjection, exclamation,
assertion of a truth, or comparison; and I think them in the right: upon
what occasion soever we call upon God to accompany and assist us, it
ought always to be done with the greatest reverence and devotion.

There is, as I remember, a passage in Xenophon where he tells us that we
ought so much the more seldom to call upon God, by how much it is hard to
compose our souls to such a degree of calmness, patience, and devotion as
it ought to be in at such a time; otherwise our prayers are not only vain
and fruitless, but vicious: "forgive us," we say, "our trespasses, as we
forgive them that trespass against us"; what do we mean by this petition
but that we present to God a soul free from all rancour and revenge? And
yet we make nothing of invoking God's assistance in our vices, and
inviting Him into our unjust designs:

          "Quae, nisi seductis, nequeas committere divis"

     ["Which you can only impart to the gods, when you have gained them
     over."—Persius, ii. 4.]

the covetous man prays for the conservation of his vain and superfluous
riches; the ambitious for victory and the good conduct of his fortune;
the thief calls Him to his assistance, to deliver him from the dangers
and difficulties that obstruct his wicked designs, or returns Him thanks
for the facility he has met with in cutting a man's throat; at the door
of the house men are going to storm or break into by force of a petard,
they fall to prayers for success, their intentions and hopes of cruelty,
avarice, and lust.

         "Hoc igitur, quo to Jovis aurem impellere tentas,
          Dic agedum Staio: 'proh Jupiter! O bone, clamet,
          Jupiter!' At sese non clamet Jupiter ipse."

     ["This therefore, with which you seek to draw the ear of Jupiter,
     say to Staius. 'O Jupiter! O good Jupiter!' let him cry. Think
     you Jupiter himself would not cry out upon it?"—Persius, ii. 21.]

Marguerite, Queen of Navarre,—[In the Heptameron.]—tells of a young
prince, who, though she does not name him, is easily enough by his great
qualities to be known, who going upon an amorous assignation to lie with
an advocate's wife of Paris, his way thither being through a church, he
never passed that holy place going to or returning from his pious
exercise, but he always kneeled down to pray. Wherein he would employ
the divine favour, his soul being full of such virtuous meditations,
I leave others to judge, which, nevertheless, she instances for a
testimony of singular devotion. But this is not the only proof we have
that women are not very fit to treat of theological affairs.

A true prayer and religious reconciling of ourselves to Almighty God
cannot enter into an impure soul, subject at the very time to the
dominion of Satan. He who calls God to his assistance whilst in a course
of vice, does as if a cut-purse should call a magistrate to help him, or
like those who introduce the name of God to the attestation of a lie.

                         "Tacito mala vota susurro

          ["We whisper our guilty prayers."-—Lucan, v. 104.]

There are few men who durst publish to the world the prayers they make to
Almighty God:

         "Haud cuivis promptum est, murmurque, humilesque susurros
          Tollere de templis, et aperto vivere voto"

     ["'Tis not convenient for every one to bring the prayers he mutters
     out of the temple, and to give his wishes to the public ear.
     —"Persius, ii. 6.]

and this is the reason why the Pythagoreans would have them always public
and heard by every one, to the end they might not prefer indecent or
unjust petitions as this man:

              "Clare quum dixit, Apollo!
               Labra movet, metuens audiri: Pulcra Laverna,
               Da mihi fallere, da justum sanctumque videri;
               Noctem peccatis, et fraudibus objice nubem."

     ["When he has clearly said Apollo! he moves his lips, fearful to be
     heard; he murmurs: O fair Laverna, grant me the talent to deceive;
     grant me to appear holy and just; shroud my sins with night, and
     cast a cloud over my frauds."—Horace, Ep., i. 16, 59.—(Laverna
     was the goddess of thieves.)]

The gods severely punished the wicked prayers of OEdipus in granting
them: he had prayed that his children might amongst themselves determine
the succession to his throne by arms, and was so miserable as to see
himself taken at his word. We are not to pray that all things may go as
we would have them, but as most concurrent with prudence.

We seem, in truth, to make use of our prayers as of a kind of jargon, and
as those do who employ holy words about sorceries and magical operations;
and as if we reckoned the benefit we are to reap from them as depending
upon the contexture, sound, and jingle of words, or upon the grave
composing of the countenance. For having the soul contaminated with
concupiscence, not touched with repentance, or comforted by any late
reconciliation with God, we go to present Him such words as the memory
suggests to the tongue, and hope from thence to obtain the remission of
our sins. There is nothing so easy, so sweet, and so favourable, as the
divine law: it calls and invites us to her, guilty and abominable as we
are; extends her arms and receives us into her bosom, foul and polluted
as we at present are, and are for the future to be. But then, in return,
we are to look upon her with a respectful eye; we are to receive this
pardon with all gratitude and submission, and for that instant at least,
wherein we address ourselves to her, to have the soul sensible of the
ills we have committed, and at enmity with those passions that seduced us
to offend her; neither the gods nor good men (says Plato) will accept the
present of a wicked man:

                   "Immunis aram si terigit manus,
                    Non sumptuosa blandior hostia
                    Mollivit aversos Penates
                    Farre pio et saliente mica."

     ["If a pure hand has touched the altar, the pious offering of a
     small cake and a few grains of salt will appease the offended gods
     more effectually than costly sacrifices."
     —Horace, Od., iii. 23, 17.]