It was a joy to take morning worship at Waddington Street URC on Trinity Sunday. The Durham church is fairly renowned in the synod for the many beautiful icons displayed on the sanctuary walls. So with icons in mind I presented to the congregation one of the world’s most famous icons of the Holy Trinity, an icon painted by Andrei Rublev, a devout 14th century monk.
The holy man is considered to be the greatest medieval Russian painter of Orthodox icons and frescos. His icon of the Holy Trinity beautifully represents the three persons of the Trinity as angels seated around a table bearing a single cup. But rather than marvel at and pray with the celebrated Icon portrayed on the church screen I read a poem entitled “Rublev” by Archbishop Rowan Williams published when he was Bishop of Monmouth (the poem comes from Rowan Williams’s first collection, After Silent Centuries, published by The Perpetua Press, Oxford, in 1994). The poem formed part of the liturgy for morning worship:-
One day, God walked in, pale from the grey steppe,
slit-eyed against the wind, and stopped,
said, Colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth.
I said, Here is the blood of all our people,
these are their bruises, blue and purple,
gold, brown, and pale green wash of death.
These (god) are the chromatic pains of flesh,
I said, I trust I shall make you blush,
O I shall stain you with the scars of birth
For ever, I shall root you in the wood,
under the sun shall bake you bread
of beechmast, never let you forth
To the white desert, to the starving sand.
But we shall sit and speak around
one table, share one food, one earth.
Carol Rumens, herself a poet and visiting Professor of Creative Writing, at the University of Wales, Bangor, suggests that the poem is spoken by Rublev (The Guardian 18th July 2011). The monk would have taken a vow of silence. Knowing that, the poem is treated as a metaphor of inner experience. It immediately forces the reader into a world where sacred things are ordinary. Look how the poem starts with the arresting announcement, “One day God walked in …..” The off-hand tone, the sense of God as a fallible fellow-mortal, owes something to another famous Welsh poet/priest of mine, R S Thomas. Rublev’s relationship with God is conveyed as utterly down-to-earth.
So God appears, but there is no radiance; only a literal, wind-bitten, travel-drained, very human-looking deity, dropping in unexpectedly. He asks for colour, as a real traveller might ask for food and drink. Rublev regards his visitor with certain impudence: “These (god) are the chromatic pains of flesh.” In this line, “God” doesn’t even get a capital letter. The title seems almost sarcastic, a mumbled aside, a grumbled curse. Rublev then waxes eloquent. He agrees, with a vengeance, to give God colour. Williams’s choice of colours is faithful to Rublev’s own. In the icon, they enhance the mood of soft tender melancholy. In the poem, they are especially chosen to remind God of bloodshed, pain and decay – the flaws in His creation.
See how the three-line verse-structure connects us to the concept of the Trinity. All the final lines rhyme consonantally: mouth, death, birth, forth, earth.
It’s not only the rhyme-words that have grain and texture. Throughout the poem, concrete nouns are placed like depth-charges: blood, wood, beechmast*, bread, sand. There are strong transitive verbs, too, like colour, breathe (in that astonishing command, “Breathe your blood into my mouth”), root, stain, bake. Rublev’s character and something of his technique emerge in the physicality of his diction. As the poem progresses, he speaks with increasing fire and authority. God stays silent.
The poem, like the icon, sets out to know God, fix Him in time, and make Him flesh and blood and earth. But, while the icon depicts the Trinity, the poem depicts a pair: God and Rublev, Creator and procreator, face to face across the table. In George Herbert’s poem “Love,” God is the host, the poet the humble guest, reluctant to eat, overcome with shame. But in this poem, the bold artist Rublev is the host. He has made God blush; he will feed him only the frugal “bread of beechmast.” And he will never let Him go.
* The fruit or masts of the Beech tree [Fagus sylvatica] are tiny in size and contain a high fat content; oil extracted from the masts was often used for cooking in the past. There is an eighteenth century reference to the beech kernels being put in soups. Another old source comments that suitably treated they could be turned into bread, it is also claimed that roasted beechnuts have been used as a coffee substitute .The fruit is also very good animal feed.
Minister, St Andrew’s Dawson Street, Crook