Many of Herbert’s poems take an interest in Christian communion or the Eucharist, the rite in which Christians eat bread and drink wine that in some traditions symbolize Christ’s body and blood, and in other traditions are thought actually to be Christ’s body and blood. In fact, scholar William Bonnell argues that all of the metaphors in “Prayer (I)” can be read as a story about taking communion: the first four lines are about preparation, the next four lines describe its effects, and the remaining lines show man’s thanks after receiving the sacrament.
In order to understand this poem, as well as Herbert’s other allusions to the Eucharist, it is important to delve into his relationship to this part of the church service. Herbert became a priest in 1629. This was a tumultuous period in Church history: less than a century after the Protestant Reformation in England, Catholic and Protestant theologians warred over subjects including the doctrine of transubstantiation. Catholics believed that, in ceremony, the Eucharist literally became Christ’s body and blood, while Protestants saw this as a metaphor.
Protestantism and its offshoots advocated for a more direct, personal relationship with God. Herbert’s poems, based on his own religious experience, demonstrate his personal understanding of Christian practices including prayer and the Eucharist. However, as a priest and a leader of men, he found himself in a difficult position. George Tolley notes that, as a priest, Herbert would have been tasked “not only to receive God...but also to break and administer him” (23). That is, Herbert not only ate the wafer imbued with Christ’s presence, but also broke that same wafer into pieces for his congregants.
Whether or not we view “Prayer (I)” as a poem that is chiefly about the Eucharist, it draws on the imagery of transubstantiation to suggest that prayer enables a personal understanding of God. However, in sharing this personal understanding, it is also radically open to interpretation, perhaps reflecting Herbert’s methods as a priest.