June 01, 1991

Comfortable Words

Filed under: Archive,Books


A Common Prayer


Collins Dove

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

For the past twenty years Michael Leunig has turned wisps and smudges of paint and ink into sublime visual comedy. His Franciscan bestiary of parrots, foxes, cats, small dogs and ducks have been ubiquitous since the days of the Nation Review and latterly as spirits of The Age. These creatures have followed stars in billycarts and given solace to the downcast humanity who mope and muse and wonder in a universe uncannily like our own.

When asked a couple of years ago to draw a cartoon for the Sunday Age Michael Leunig made another suggestion instead. “I found it difficult to be enthused, ” he writes in his preface to A Common Prayer, ” I felt there were already enough jokes and amusements at hand and the boom in humour and satire I found somewhat oppressive. ”

“It seemed to me that newspapers might carry some small spiritual message of consolation as a tiny reparation for the enormous anxiety and distress I believe they can create, an anxiety and distress which I felt was not and could not be addressed or relieved by humorists. Prayer as a creative lacuna, as an ancient free form and as a marvellous, stabilising idea, intrigued me greatly.”

While the prayers in this collection have been written in the last two years, the idea has intrigued  Leunig since he first began publishing  – evident in cartoons such as his Adoration of the Magpie, not to mention the dozens of poems, homilies and existential aphorisms that have appeared under his name. A Common Prayer is not the result of a Damascus conversion. Michael Leunig did not need to be been born again, he was a genius in the first place.

For Leunig, prayer is creative, meditative and probably polytheistic. Of the cover painting, in Giotto blues and golds, he writes -“I have drawn a simple picture of a person kneeling before a duck to symbolise and demonstrate my ideas and feelings about the nature of prayer. I ask the reader to bear with the absurdity of the image and to remember that the search for the sublime may sometimes have a ridiculous beginning.”

The irrationality is important, as is the humility. As Leunig reminds us- you can’t get a decent look at a duck unless you kneel down.  In the matter of prayer it is the process of transmission that concerns him, not whether there is anyone waiting in the clouds to hear. It is the act of declaration that matters. Prayers that are answered, are answered  from within.

Leunig’s texts are as clear and plain as day. “Dear God, These circumstances will change. This situation will pass.” They sometimes read like collaborations between St Jude of Lost Causes and Samuel Beckett -“God bless the lost, the confused, the bewildered, the puzzled, the mystified, the baffled, and the perplexed. Amen.” He gives thanks for birds, for domestic animals, for winter, for the darkness of the night and for change. Nothing  sanctimonious  or cute, Leunig steers by those nets.

The King James version of The Book of Common Prayer refers to the comfortable words of the saints, reassurances to believers of the certainty of the life to come. Leunig’s gentle, numinous writings give comfort and delight by embracing the uncertainties  of the life that is:

“God give us rain when we expect sun.

Give us music when we expect trouble.

Give us tears when we expect breakfast

Give us dreams when we expect a stor m.

Give us a stray dog when we expect congratulations.

God play with us, turn us sideways and around.


“Comfortable Words” The Adelaide Review, No.89, June, 1991, p.23.

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