Prayers like gravel Flung at the sky's window, hoping to attract the loved one's attention. But without visible plaits to let down for the believer to climb up, to what purpose open that far casement? I would have refrained long since but that peering once through my locked fingers I thought that I detected the movement of a curtain. (R.S. Thomas)
I came across this poem by R S Thomas today, and it started me thinking. I love his image of prayer like gravel, thrown at the loved one’s window – that he has to attract God’s attention in this way. God is like a reluctant lover, someone who can only be contacted through an action that feels like a subterfuge. The reference to Rapunzel is strange, and suggests that Thomas thinks both God and prayer are like a fairy-tale that he is not sure he believes. The following reference of the ‘far casement’ reminds me of Keats’ Nightingale Ode, where he talks about the ‘Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas in fairy lands forlorn’ – another make-believe, melancholy world where beauty is something real but unreachable.
The most Thomas can hope for, by way of an answer to his prayers, is a fleeting sign that possibly, there is someone behind the curtain who does not want to be seen, and although he/she may be curious about the gravel- thrower, there is no attempt at a response. There is only the hint that the curtain-twitcher may know the gravel-thrower, but has decided not to communicate. It is also possible that they have a shared history, which has led the one behind the curtain to half-hide.
It’s a beautiful and suggestive poem, but I also find it a bit irritating. For heavens’ sake – is this really the best he can do? He’s a priest, after all. There is something dishonest about his melancholy, and maybe something indolent as well: he would rather write sad poems than deal with the doubt at the heart of his spirituality. I compared it in my mind with Herbert’s image in this, one of the most famous of his poems:
‘Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.’
The landscape could not be more different from Thomas’s. Here there is no suggestion of melancholy and fairy-tales and doubt. I compare Thomas’ timid throwing of gravel with Herbert’s ‘engine against th’ Almighty’. It is taken from siege warfare, the ‘engine’ that would be built to fling missiles against the fortress.
Again, it suggests a reluctance on God’s part to listen – or does it? Herbert is not suggesting that prayer may be unreal, as Thomas does – the context of the whole poem shows quite the reverse. Herbert is suggesting that prayer may need to be as persistent and focused as experienced fighters determined to bring about surrender.
Does this suggest that God is holding out against the one who prays? It might do, except that Herbert immediately follows it with the image of prayer as the ‘sinner’s tow’r’ – an image found in the Psalms, a place of refuge for the believer, where he is protected by God from attack.
These rich, resonant, robust images, which capture so many of the facets of prayer, I find both theologically and spiritually satisfying. I know which of them I would want as my parish priest – the one whose profound and nuanced faith could feed my own.
(siege engine image from http://mauriceboddy.org.uk/Caerlaverock.htm )