Saturday 23 November 2013

The girl and George Herbert (version 2.0)

Yesterday I related this anecdote about my visit to Bemerton and a cafe in Salisbury. When I wrote the post I found the ending quite lame, but didn't know how to improve it. But thanks to a wonderful comment by Alan Jacobs, I've now been able to rewrite the post, and to give it a proper ending. It is a pleasure – a very great pleasure – to be wrong about something when it means you get to be corrected by a person like Alan Jacobs. So here's the new version.

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 I seemed to have glimpsed the naked 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 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 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 wrapping all around 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.

Or was the girl's effect on me more closely related to the effect that Bemerton had had on me an hour before? Did my soul wake up too much at Bemerton, so that instead of stumbling drowsily through life as usual I was, in that cafe, staring reality in the face? Is that why the first human being who crossed my path seemed so unbearably bright and piercing? Was I tempted to worship her for the simple reason that I saw her for what she really is: the image of God in black stockings? Was it merely – merely! – the radiance of a real human being that pierced my heart and knocked my soul off balance?

Was all this, in short, a spiritual side-effect of praying in the little church in Bemerton?

Perhaps it is a mercy that we normally perceive each other so dimly, like shadows gliding by in a dream. Perhaps God dulls our senses out of kindness, knowing that if we saw each other for what we really are, we would spend every day half-blinded by the light reflected in every face. We would be paralysed by glory. We would never get anything done. Our hearts would be so ravished by the sight of even the most unexceptional human beings that we would be constantly struggling against (or yielding to) the temptation to fall at their feet and worship them.

We see one another through a glass darkly: thank God for that! But after going to Bemerton and kneeling in a place where prayer has been valid, I came back out into the light of day and accidentally saw another human being face to face. And now I will have to live somehow with the consequences.

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