God woke, but the nightmare did not recede. Word by word the tower of speech grew. He looked at it from the air he reclined on. One word more and it would be on a level with him; vovabulary would have triumphed. He measured the thin gap with his mind. no, no, no, wider than that! But the nearness persisted. How to live with the fact, that was the feat now. How to take his rest on the edge of a chasm a word could bridge. He leaned over and looked in the dictionary they used. There was a blank still by his name of the same order as the territory between them, the verbal hunger for the thing itself. And the darkness that is a god's blood swelled in him, and he let it to make the sign in the space on the page, that us in all languages and none; that is the grammarian's torment and the mystery at the cell's core, and the equation that will not come out, and is the narrowness that we stare over into the eternal silence that is the repose of God.
Mthr. Carys comments that this “might seem a curious choice for reflection during this week looking at ‘birthing’,” as indeed it is. The echoes of the story of the Tower of Babel resonates too with the story of the Fall and God’s words in Genesis 3:22
The result, of course, was exile from Eden.
The reference to Genesis helps us contextualise this poem.
The first part – to the break – is written in the breathlesss, driving language of a passionate quest. As Mthr. Cary’s notes:
words fly around in short lines; some are repeated, and often-stacatto sound phrases are hurled quickly in simple, sibilant, sharp words, sometimes with small plosive sounds, or a note of sharp fear …”Frequencies, p. 133
The serpent told Eve that:
God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil
Eliot gets to the heart of the matter in Burnt Norton in commenting:
And that is central to understanding this poem.
There is in mankind, and I do, I am afraid think it is mankind, an urge to power and control. In many ways it is an admirable and necessary quality. It has taken humankind from caves and short life-spans to comfortable houses and long life-spans. But there is a dark side which we see in our less desirable characteristics. Science is a good thing – in its place. It is a good servant and a bad master. Because we can build atomic weapons does not mean we should; because we can use them to destroy our enemies, does not mean that we should. That industrialisation which has been one of our proudest boasts as a species, and which has done so much good to so many, turns out to have a dark side to it, and I am simply one of many who fear the effects of climate change which seems driven faster by our actions.
So perhaps we can begin to see God’s point here? Mankind wants God on mankind’s terms. Thinking ourselves to be God, we are, nonethless not God, and however much we wish to define God as we want, he will not be so defined. He evades us. Or, to be more accurate, our finite attempts to define him fail. Even when he sent the Light of the world into the world, the world knew him not and would not receive him:
But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his nameJohn 1:12
As C451 noted, God defies our expectations, and the Messiah came not as we thought he would come, but as God wanted. No doubt if God thundered from the heavens thrice daily, even the most sceptical atheist would belive – the evidence might have to be that overwhelming, but so what? That would be to convince our intellects; but what of our hearts? It was love with which God created the world, and love with which he redeemed it. Love does not ask to know, love perceives; love does not demand evidence, it provides it. A God we could define in our own words and image would be us – and we would be like Narcissus.
What the wise men seek to divine through sleepless nights and ceaseless labour is revealed to the small child who trusts and loves. That is not how we might want it to be, it might not fit with our sense of how it should be. But it is in humilty, not pride, that he comes to us. And that gap? In that space we grow and become who he means us to be. We are back to the waiting, the silence and their value to driven human beings who want what we want and want it now.
There is an #adventbookclub using “Frequencies of God” by Carys Walsh and you can support the publisher by buying it here: https://canterburypress.hymnsam.co.uk/books/9781786220882/frequencies-of-god. We’ll be running this club on Twitter and Facebook, and you are welcome to join in with thoughts and comments. Other folk doing this are https://grahart.wordpress.com/ and https://becausegodislove.wordpress.com/ so please pop over and read their thoughts too!