We continue our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer. If you want a feel for the book itself and for what moved me to write it there is a full interview Here, conducted by Lancia Smith for her excellent ‘Cultivating’ website.
In our last post, Heaven in Ordinary we saw how for just for a moment the glassy surface of the world, dusty and familiar, is cleared and cleansed; something shines through. Now, in the mysterious phrase ‘Man Well Dressed’. In his Cambridge days Herbert was knows as a dapper, even a natty dresser and he had a taste for the finer things in life. All these he gave to Christ who gave him in return a new and even richer clothing.
This phrase in Herbert’s poem keys in to one of the great themes of Scripture, the meaning of our nakedness and out clothing, the deepest senses in which we are all naked before God and yet God, in his infinite kindness, comes to us and clothes us in his own righteousness, wraps and mantles us in his holiness and his Love. Herbert was aware of the early tradition that saw the moment in Genesis, when we were cowering behind the fig-leaf of our excuses, God in his compassion made us clothes, (Gen. 3:21) as an anticipation of the coming of Christ, that one day we would ‘put on Christ’, that Christ is himself the wedding garment we all need but cannot make ourselves, to fit us for the high King’s feast. Paul’s letters are full of this, how we must be clothed in meekness and humility, and girdle all these virtues together with Love, and how that meekness, humility and Love are all given us in Christ. Indeed in his lovely poem ‘Sunday’ Herbert reminds us of what it cost Christ to make us this new garment:
The brightness of that day
We sullied by our foul offence:
Wherefore that robe we cast away,
Having a new at his expense,
Whose drops of bloud paid the full price,
That was requir’d to make us gay,
And fit for Paradise.
That lovely fusion of Genesis and Paul was in my mind too when I came to write my sonnet. As always you can hear me read it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.
That old voice from the past: I was afraid,
For I was naked; and I hid myself.
And somehow I’m still there, lost in that glade,
Feeling exposed, ashamed, and, in my stealth
Still holding the fell fruit. He finds me as
My withered fig leaves fall away, and still
He clothes me, for the way of heaven is
Always to give and give to those who steal.
But now the skin I’m clothed in is his own,
He makes himself a garment for us all,
At once the bridegroom and the wedding gown.
I step forth from the thicket of my fall
Already dressed in every gift he gave,
Gathered and girdled in his circling love.