On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we conclude in this dark series, within the longer sequence, in which Herbert explores the experience of frustration, struggle and anger in our prayer life, with an image that at once sharpens and resolves, and re-frames all the preceding images of struggle and conflict: ‘Christ’s side-piercing spear’.
Here we are no longer in the realm of some great, general struggle, figured under the image of siege warfare, now it’s personal. And more than that. As I came to write my sonnet in response to this image of prayer I realised that it changes my understanding of all the previous images. It is as though, all that time I was besieging what I thought was God’s castle, I was really facing in the wrong direction, and imagining God himself in entirely the wrong way. For all the while I was looking up, he had, without my noticing, slipped out of the castle and come down. He was not ‘up there’ any more, he was down here, on the ground amongst the wounded, as vulnerable as I am, standing with open arms, just behind me, waiting for me to turn around and come to him. There had never been any question of my breaking his siege, on the contrary, he had come down to break mine, and the spear that pierced his heart was the true emblem of all my prayers.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button, or the title.
For all the while I hurl my hurts at heaven,
Believing I besiege the battlement,
Of God’s invulnerable heart and haven,
I strike at emptiness, at my own bafflement,
I shake my fist in fury at a shadow.
For he is not like us nor are his ways
Like ours. He left that heaven’s haven long ago
And broke our siege. A voice behind me says:
Why do you weep and rage at heaven above?
I have come down to die here in the dirt,
Your wounds have wounded me, for I am Love
And in my heart I hold your deepest hurt.
Oh turn around, return, and face me here
Your slightest prayer will pierce me like a spear.