On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we continue in this dark sequence of sonnets concerned with struggle and conflict. We have had ‘engine against th’almghtie‘ and ‘sinners tower’ and now we have ‘reversed thunder’. Here Herbert takes the cliched image of Zeus hurling his thunderbolts, or a wrathful God thundering down at us, and audaciously reverses it, as though he were saying to God ‘You want to thunder at me? well, have I got thunder for you!’, following perhaps the ‘permission’ extended in the John Donne Sermon I quoted in an earlier post:
‘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,’
It is good for us to thunder back at God, if we need to. The psalms and Job are full of it and God is big enough to take it. But in my own poem on this phrase I was drawn to meditate on what produces the thunder in the first place, on the growing tension before the storm, the darkening clouds, the gradual build up of a powerful electric charge, a current that must somehow find release. It seemed to me that if Herbert is right, then prayer is a reversal of those lightening conductors we all have on the top of our church spires, with their wires ‘earthed’ in church yard, to conduct a lightening strike away from the building and into the earth. In prayer it is all the other way round, and when we finally release our tension in prayer and let God have the full blast of what we’re feeling, all the energy of our prayer runs up the conductor, who is Christ himself, and is ‘earthed’ with him in Heaven.
This light is muffled, muted, murky, dense,
Thick with a threat of thunder unreleased.
The clouds are darkening, the air grows tense,
The coming storm is lowering in the east
Something within me trembles too, and pales,
Though no one sees the brooding darkness there,
Or feels the tension building between poles
Of faith and doubt, of vision and despair.
Everything deepens, gathers to a head:
Anguish and anger at my absent God
Until the charge of all that’s left unsaid
Leaps out at last to find its lightening rod.
But even as the skies are rent and riven
I find that lightening rod is earthed in heaven.