Continuing, with our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we find, after the Christian plummet, that we have entered into a dark sequence of four further sonnets of struggle and conflict, and I would like to say something by way of preface to this dark sequence within the wider sequence of the whole poem, before I give you each day the individual poems:
‘Engine against th’Almighty, sinners tower
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,’
This is as an extraordinary clutch of related images, all drawing on pictures of warfare and violence against God to describe of part of our relation with Him in prayer. Herbert achieves his effect by a sudden reversal of perspective, epitomised here in the phrase ‘reversed thunder’ We think of God in Heaven thundering down on us, but in prayer we are at liberty to thunder back at him as indeed in our desperation we sometimes do and perhaps those are our best prayers. The ‘Engine against the Almighty’ is almost certainly intended to conjure the image of a catapult or similar siege engine.
The image of prayer as a form of weaponry is of course rooted in St. Paul’s military metaphors (e.g. Ephesians 6:13 forward) but here Herbert has dared to observe that it is not always the devil, but sometimes God himself whom we are fighting, as we struggle with our vocation to full humanity. In compressing this idea into the images of his poem Herbert may have been remembering a sermon by his older friend John Donne:
‘Earnest prayer hath the nature of Importunity; Wee presse, wee importune God…Prayer hath the nature of Impudency; wee threaten God in Prayer…and God suffers this Impudency and more. Prayer hath the nature of Violence; in the publique Prayers of the Congregation we besiege God, saies Tertullian, and we take God Prisoner, and bring God to our Conditions; and God is glad to be straightened by us in that siege.’[The Sermons of John Donne ed. Potter and Simpson, (Los Angeles, 1953-1962) vol. V p.364]
But after the thunders and towers and cannons of the siege imagery, Herbert brings the focus down and sharpens it with that single piercing image: ‘Christ-side-piercing spear’. We have become the centurion, making that terrible thrust, but this time it is not cold iron but our own agonies which are piercing the heart of Christ
Now here is my poem for ‘Engine against th’Almightie. As I say in the preface to After Payer, I found that following Herber’s images allowed me to open out and give expression to some of my own experiences of struggle and desolation in prayer.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.
Here in this shadowed valley, dark and bleak,
We lay a bitter siege against the one
Who was our heart’s desire, but now withdraws
Behind his battlements. Our prayers just break
Against what seem like walls of silent stone.
We make an engine of our injuries,
And vault at God a volley of our sorrows:
All the despair and anger that we feel.
The catapult of our catastrophes
Hurls up its heavy load, and flights of arrows
Clatter against his walls, fall back and fail.
How can we make him feel our miseries?
We fling back famine at him, torture, cancer,
Is he almighty then? Has he no answer?