James Montgomery wrote over 400 hymns, over 100 of which are still in common use in Christian churches today. Within our own LDS hymnbook, we find Montgomery in the byline of two of our most beautiful and beloved hymns, The Lord is My Shepherd and A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief. We know and love those hymns, but another of his—Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire—lacks nothing in the poetic majesty and beautiful pure doctrine for which we revere the others.
Every verse allows vivid imagery to unwind profound doctrinal insights. This is a hymn to drink slowly, and to savor… every word. There are three key insights that we take away from this text: that prayer comes in many forms, that prayer is beautiful to God, and that we never pray alone.
Prayer Comes in Many Forms
Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Uttered or unexpressed,
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.
Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of an eye
When none but God is near.
The prophet Alma, two thousand years earlier, taught the same message. Sometimes a prayer is spoken aloud on bended knee, following a prescribed pattern and using familiar phasing. Other times it is unexpressed, a “hidden fire” that we dare not expose to others and even hesitate to take before the Lord. At other times, prayer is simply “the upward glancing of an eye,” the acknowledgment that a power greater than our own is needed to shoulder the burden we carry. So often prayer is a silent plea, but it does not fall on unhearing ears.
Prayer is Beautiful to God
Prayer is the simplest form of speech
That infant lips can try;
Prayer, the sublimest strains that reach
The Majesty on high.
Prayer is the contrite sinner’s voice,
Returning from his ways,
While angels in their songs rejoice
And cry, “Behold, he prays!”
The Savior, in His earthly ministry, repeatedly taught the value of the individual—whether via metaphor of a lost sheep, for whom the shepherd left the others to find, or a piece of silver that the disquieted owner rejoiced when he found again. If the Lord puts so much emphasis on finding those who have gone astray and bringing them back to the fold, it makes sense that the sweetest sounds He can hear—the “sublimest strains”—are our voices coming to Him, instead of the other way around.
We Do Not Pray Alone
Nor prayer is made on earth alone:
The Holy Spirit pleads,
And Jesus at the Father’s throne
For sinners intercedes.
Many times we turn to prayer in the times when we feel the loneliest. Sincere prayer almost appears to be an individual pursuit, as we wrestle before God with our sins and pains. We do not see, however, what is happening on the other side of the veil—our Savior, Jesus Christ, pleading our cause and adding His influence to the things we are praying for, no matter how insignificant they may be in the Father’s eternal plan. It’s a tremendous, miraculous gift. We have a Savior, and it is through Him that our prayers are heard by our Father in Heaven.
When James Montgomery writes that prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, he doesn’t mean that our sincere desire is to pray; nor does he suggest that prayer is simply how we ask for what we desire most. No, the message to each of us is that when the desire stems from deep in our soul, unabated by ego, bias, and human imperfection, then it is prayer—our Heavenly Father hears.
And if we’re listening, He may answer.