On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we continue in this dark series, within the longer sequence, in which Herbert explores the experience of frustration, struggle and anger in our prayer life. In yesterday’s post we saw how Herbert introduced the image of siege warfare with the phrase ‘Engine against th’almighty’, and it seems to be continued in today’s phrase ‘Sinners’s Tower’. There is some debate amongst Herbert scholars as to whether this leads directly from the previous phrase and refers to a siege tower, constructed so as to help the besieging forces get up over the battlements, or whether it might be a reference to the tower of Babel. I believe it is both, because the tower of Babel, mankind’s attempt to reach Heaven by its own power and with its own culture and technology, is precisely a kind of siege tower since it depends on the idea that God is somehow (and only) ‘High and Mighty’ sealed up in heaven. The incarnation tells us otherwise! The key term, indeed the shocking moment in the Genesis narrative telling the story of Babel, is the moment, just before the tower is completed, when God says ‘Let us go down‘ (Genesis 11:verse 7). As so often an act of judgement in the Old Testament prepares for, and opens out an act of blessing in the New Testament. In Genesis God goes down to confound our misguided efforts and to scatter us. But this is only because, having brought to nothing our false religiosity, He will truly come down in Christ, and become one of us, take our nature and deal with our sin, so us to lift us up, in His strength, not ours, to Heaven.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title
Exhausted by my own siege engine’s roar,
The clatter and the rattle of my prayer,
I drop, defeated, at his bolted door,
And sink awhile in silence and despair.
Is there another way to come at him,
Who seems so distant in his might and power?
I have no wings to rise like seraphim
So I begin to build the sinners tower,
Returning to that folly back in Babel.
Effort and elevation are my aim,
As though by my own powers I were able
To overwrite the nameless with my name.
But just before the summit and the crown
A voice in darkness calls: ‘let us go down’.