Phillips Brooks and I have little in common except we both have prayed and preached in the same church. And we both lived in Boston. And had experiences as high school teachers (but only he was fired, thank you very much). And my office is in his former house. And he stares at me every time I celebrate the Eucharist.
Born to patrician parents—locally known as the ‘Boston Brahmin’ set—in 1835, Phillips Brooks was the second of five children. Educated at local private schools in Boston, he graduated from Harvard College and went on to teach for a single year at a high school (which, as stated above, went poorly). He sought out mentorship from his former professors, and they suggested he consider ordained ministry as a vocation. Only a few years later, he graduated from seminary in Virginia, was ordained, and ended up serving a parish in Philadelphia.
While Brooks was a less-than-stellar high school teacher, his writing skills were considerable. What he wrote about faith, the life lived in God, and the role of the church gained traction in both parishes he served in Philadelphia. At his first parish, he wrote the lyrics to ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ as a children’s hymn for the church school. By 1865, at the ripe old age of 31, he had become a nationally recognized preacher. He then took a year off from ministry to travel in Europe, returning to accept the position of Rector of Trinity Church in the City of Boston in 1867. He came home.
Brooks is known for two main reasons: his preaching and his vision for a new parish building in a style never seen before, which would become Trinity Church’s Copley Square location. Having outgrown the space for Trinity’s original location in downtown Boston, Brooks began searching outside the ‘regular’ limits of Boston and chose a tract of land in a developing neighborhood just outside the city center. Having purchased the land, he and the congregation received bids for the building project and program, and chose a finalist (H. H. Richardson) who had yet to build anything of this breadth or stature.
The building project took seven years, and the new building in Copley Square was consecrated in February 1877, just four days after the interior painting was finished. It was massive, innovative and unexpected, inside and out. Brooks eliminated pew rents, ensuring that all had access to the church (well, and his sermons). He saw his ministry as a one not only to Episcopalians, but to the City of Boston, and established, as part of its ministry, various centers of service, aid, and housing throughout the city.
Much of Brooks’ ministry (and his own person) is larger than life. Nearly every biography mentions his 6’4” stature, billowing robes, voice, and presence. His vision for a church and congregation of this magnitude, utilizing not the recognized experts of the time—but cultivating a new generation of artists, architects and project managers—literally and metaphorically changed the landscape of both Boston and the Church itself.
Which begs the question, what is the prayer presence of someone who can think that way? Who holds ‘what could be’ as a faithful response to God?
Brooks responded, “Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.”
One of the best known prayers Brooks wrote reflects his belief that in the ordinary grounding of ourselves in prayer, we are equipped to trust God and imagine greatly.
O God: Give me strength to live another day; Let me not turn coward before its difficulties or prove recreant to its duties; Let me not lose faith in other people; Keep me sweet and sound of heart, in spite of ingratitude, treachery, or meanness; Preserve me from minding little stings or giving them; Help me to keep my heart clean, and to live so honestly and fearlessly that no outward failure can dishearten me or take away the joy of conscious integrity: Open wide the eyes of my soul that I may see good in all things; Grant me this day some new vision of thy truth; Inspire me with the spirit of joy and gladness; and make me the cup of strength to suffering souls; in the name of the strong Deliverer, our only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The small ways in which we are able to see ourselves in relationship to God, Jesus, and others will be the source of our strength and vision beyond our imaginations, according to Brooks.
And he’s right.
Some days when I consider my own legacy as a parent with my children, I nurture a desire for us all to make a change in the world around us, to create something more than what we can ask or imagine of God. And then I get overwhelmed with getting dinner on the table, or signing the reading log, or remembering that there is three-day-old wet laundry in the washer.
Phillips Brooks reminds me—and he lived only until he was 58—that the ongoing small practices of faithfulness and prayer will change me not only in small ways, but in ways I can’t even envision yet, allowing me the ‘conscious integrity’ of courage and ‘new vision of God’s truth’.
May it be so.