Article of the week: God be in my head

15 January 2022

Major John Waters continues a series of reflections on classic prayers

ONE of the prayers I learnt at school is at least late medieval in origin and first written in France by an unknown author. It appeared in English in 1490 and was printed in a book of hours, which was a liturgy for those who wished for a monastic pattern of prayer. In 1558 it was included in a republished edition of the Sarum Primer, a collection of prayer and worship resources that was developed at Salisbury Cathedral and used throughout Britain up to the 16th-century Reformation. While essentially a prayer, it is also a song in that it has been set to music, most popularly by H Walford Davies and more recently by John Rutter.

In the Army songbook the Walford melody, ‘God Be in My Head’, is one of three suggestions, with ‘Esher’ and, one I especially like, ‘Invocation’.

God be in my head,
And in my understanding;
God be in my 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 my end,
And at my departing.

(SASB 1026)

The idea that all our being and expression may be subjected to our sense of the divine presence is thoroughly biblical and is well described in Jesus’ summary of the Old Testament commandments: ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength… Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:29–31).

Another Scripture passage suggested by the prayer follows a discussion between Jesus and some Pharisees and teachers who question him on the disciples’ neglect of ritual cleansing. Jesus replies to their criticism: ‘What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them… For out of the heart come evil thoughts... These are what defile a person’ (Matthew 15:11–20).

The prayer is, line by line, very challenging. Our outward behaviour, which impacts on our neighbour, is the product of an inward disposition. Paul talks of having ‘the same mindset as Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 2:5) and Jesus describes this experience as his abiding or remaining in us and we in him (see John 15:4–7). If that is so, then God will also be in those outward expressions – our thinking, focused on God, will be reflected in our understanding and consequently in our looking and our speaking.

O, that it will be so!


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