The waves run up the shore and fall back. I run up the approaches of God and fall back. The breakers return reaching a little further, gnawing away at the main land. They have done this thousands of years, exposing little by little the rock under the soil’s face. I must imitate them only in my return to the assault, not in their violence. Dashing my prayers at him will achieve little other than the exposure of the rock under his surface. My returns must be made on my knees. Let despair be known as my ebb-tide; but let prayer have its springs, too, brimming, disarming him; discovering somewhere among his fissures deposits of mercy where trust may take root and grow.
When I was a girl and lived very near the sea, I used to stand on the cliff and watch the tide come in and go out. I was fascinated by it and its regularity. As I grew up, I often thought of the tide as a way of thinking about my relationship with God, and the first time I read this poem, it spoke powerfully to me; it still does.
Sometimes I am asked by sceptical friends (moving in academic circles I have many friends who view my Christian faith with curiousity) whether I think my prayers “work”? That brings this poem to mind. Sometimes I get emails from groups to which I subscribe asking me to “storm Heaven with your prayers” for cause x or y. At such moments, though I have not a drop of English blood in me, I feel very English; I slightly cringe and say a prayer, but feel a bit uneasy about the language. I am really unsure whether “storming Heaven” is a thing one should do – it is all a bit reminiscent of our wanting God to do things our way. This poem is a reminder that there are other ways.
If we do simply batter Heaven like the tides batter the shores, it may, as Thomas implies, achieve little. Our Father knows what we want and need before we know it, and he knows it better. Better that we are persistent, like the tides. That may be why I find the habit of praying the lectionary Morning, Evening and Night prayers so comforting. The Morning is like the tide beginning to come in. I used the well-worn phrases, and some days find little there, and on others, there is an illumination; the Collects and intercessory prayers can, and do, add something. But there is a rhythm. The evening prayer marks the ebb of the tide, and I light more candles to mark the Light that the dark cannot defeat. Then the unvarying Compline, which lulls me to sleep.
I do this everyday, and it helps me understand what Thomas means when he writes about:
There are, unbidden (and, I might add, unbiddable) moments when small epiphanies come, when words I had thought familiar, and even worn with that familiarity, mean something more. I do not seek to pursue them, I let them settle, like those little rock pools one sees on the beach as the tide ebbs. It is in the surrendering of my will, in the suspension of my questing desire to know and see more, that the epiphanies come. Words, as Thomas so often says, will not quite do to catch them.
Mthr. Carys refers to a well-loved poe here, Dover Beach, which was the first poem I ever discussed on this blog back in 2012. There, Arnold adjures his lovers to be “true” to one another as the sea of faith ebbs away. But I prefer the image of the tides – what goes out, comes in, but what matters for those who live by the sea is the coming out and the the coming in. We often use “tides” as an image of fickleness – but they are the opposite. They are regular – as our prayers to God should be.
And now, having not quite stormed heaven, I am off to bake some scones!
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!