Thursday 21 November 2013

On the limits of thinking pious thoughts

Today I walked to the church in Bemerton where George Herbert had been a priest. I sat for an hour alone in the tiny church, reading from a book of Herbert's poems, kneeling to pray, carrying on a private little conversation with the bones of my poet which lie resting somewhere under the altar. I contemplated his poem "The Call," and for the briefest second his description of Christ as "such a feast as mends in length" lit up my mind like lightning, so that all at once I seemed to have glimpsed the bare essential truth of things (though I could not tell you afterwards exactly what it was).

The walk back to Salisbury takes about an hour, and even though it was quite wet and cold I made my way along the muddy path with a light heart, feeling very glad and free.

At an upstairs cafe in a restored medieval building in Salisbury I was brought coffee by a girl with a face like Helen of Troy. When she put down the coffee on the table beside my hand, I thought: men would launch ships, they would send their sons to war, for a face like this. She was turning to leave so I asked her for a glass of water, not because I needed water but because I needed her to come back and stand a moment longer near me, outlined against the wide window and the grey sky. I watched her turn to walk away and I thought, my God, even her knees are perfect. I wondered what her knees would look like without the black stockings. And such small feet! I imagined her gently kicking off the small black shoes, one by one, and walking barefoot across the floor.

I tasted the coffee and it was very good. She came back and put a glass of water down on the table. Her hair was longer than I had remembered and her eyes were darker than I had remembered. Because the table was so low, she had to bend down to place the glass in front of me. I averted my eyes. I looked at the light that rippled on the surface of the water in the glass.

I wished I were a stage director. I would give her the part of Cleopatra and find an Antony to make long speeches to her. I wished I were an artist. I would draw her, every inch of her, in blackest charcoal. I wanted to capture the light in her dark eyes. I wanted to bless her, salute her, memorialise her, build an altar to her. I wanted to do so many things.

The glass of water came to rest on the table in front of me. Her fingers slid away from the wet glass. Her small feet padded away on the wooden floor.

I do not mean to make you blush, reader. I record these details purely for the sake of contrast. For am I not the same identical person who, one hour before, had sat in the church at Bemerton thinking the most pious thoughts I have ever had in all my life? That entire hour of prayer and contemplation; my proximity to the bones of a saint whom I have loved my whole life; the feeling of God's will encompassing me like a cloak – what happened to all that? An hour ago my heart had gone to Bemerton. Now with all my heart – the same heart! – I was contemplating other things.

It makes you realise that pious thoughts and religious feelings are a fine thing as far as they go – but they don't go very far. Less than an hour, as it turns out.

So I suppose like everybody else I will have to go on living the Christian life the slow way. I will have to remember that it is more important to be faithful than to be pious. I will have to go on saying my prayers and taking communion and giving alms and wetting my fingers in the baptismal font, day after day and year after year.

I am still glad for one calm clear hour in the church at Bemerton, for the chance to pray with the bones of George Herbert sleeping under my feet. I am glad, too, to have been lucky enough to see a face like the face of the girl at the cafe. For all I know she might have been an angel. For all I know, underneath her clothes there are wings. But angels' wings are no concern of mine. For God made me to walk, not fly.

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