In relation to the religious bigotry we experience in the world today the barbs of Holy Willie's Prayer still hit home. The poem also retains immediate interest for the hypocrisy portrayed in the prayer is evident in so many of the actions of this century's "democratically elected" political leaders.
Holy Willie is no fictional character. He was Willie Fisher, an elder of the Kirk in the parish of Mauchline, Ayshire who, on observing what he considered the misdemeanours of his fellow parishioners, would report, at great length, to the minister on their misdeeds while making insistent proclamation of his own righteousness. In Scottish language and culture a "Holy Willie" has come to represent a hypocrite who lives a life free of self-reflection and humour. I wonder which of the world's political leaders he brings to mind?
A manuscript of the poem, handwritten by Burns may be read here on the National Library of Scotland's website.
Holy Willie's Prayer
O Thou that in the Heavens does dwell! Wha, as it pleases best thysel, Sends ane to Heaven and ten to Hell, A’ for Thy glory! And no for ony gude or ill They’ve done before Thee.— I bless and praise Thy matchless might, When thousands Thou has left in night, That I here before Thy sight, For gifts and grace, A burning and a shining light To a’ this place.— What was I, or my generation, That I should get such exaltation? I, wha deserv’d most just damnation, For broken laws Sax thousand years ere my creation, Thro’ Adam’s cause! When from my mother’s womb I fell, Thou might hae plunged me deep in hell, To gnash my gooms, and weep, and wail, In burning lakes, Where damned devils roar and yell Chain’d to their stakes.— Yet I am here, a chosen sample, To shew Thy grace is great and ample: I’m here, a pillar o’ Thy temple Strong as a rock, A guide, a ruler and example To a’ Thy flock.— [O Lord thou kens what zeal I bear, When drinkers drink, and swearers swear, And singin’ there, and dancin’ here, Wi’ great an’ sma’; For I am keepet by the fear, Free frae them a’.—] But yet—O Lord—confess I must— At times I’m fash’d wi’ fleshly lust; And sometimes too, in wardly trust Vile Self gets in; But Thou remembers we are dust, Defil’d wi’ sin.— O Lord—yestreen—thou kens—wi’ Meg— Thy pardon I sincerely beg! O may ’t ne’er be a living plague, To my dishonor! And I’ll ne’er lift a lawless leg Again upon her.— Besides, I farther maun avow, Wi’ Leezie’s lass, three times—I trow— But L—d, that friday I was fou When I cam near her; Or else, Thou kens, thy servant true Wad never steer her.— Maybe Thou lets this fleshy thorn Buffet Thy servant e’en and morn, Lest he o’er proud and high should turn, That he’s sae gifted; If sae, thy hand maun e’en be borne Untill Thou lift it.— Lord bless Thy Chosen in this place, For here Thou has a chosen race: But God, confound their stubborn face, And blast their name, Wha bring thy rulers to disgrace And open shame.— Lord mind Gaun Hamilton’s deserts! He drinks, and swears, and plays at cartes, Yet has sae mony taking arts Wi’ Great and Sma’, Frae God’s ain priest the people’s hearts He steals awa.— And when we chasten’d him therefore, Thou kens how he bred sic a splore, And set the warld in a roar O’ laughin at us: Curse Thou his basket and his store, Kail and potatoes.— Lord hear my earnest cry and prayer Against that Presbytry of Ayr! Thy strong right hand, Lord, mak it bare Upon their heads! Lord visit them, and dinna spare, For their misdeeds! O Lord my God, that glib-tongu’d Aiken! My very heart and flesh are quaking To think how I sat, sweating and shaking, An' pish’d wi’ dread, While Auld wi’ hingin lip gaed sneaking And hid his head! Lord, in thy day o’ vengeance try him! Lord visit him that did employ him! And pass not in thy mercy by them, Nor hear their prayer; But for thy people’s sake destroy them, An' dinna spare! But Lord, remember me and mine Wi’ mercies temporal and divine! That I for grace and gear may shine, Excell’d by nane! And a’ the glory shall be thine! Amen! Amen!