Jessica’s evocation of R.S Thomas in her post on Saturday prompts some thoughts about his poetry and his faith. He spent his working life as a priest in the Church of Wales, moving ever further westwards until he reached the last village before Ireland, Aberdaron. There was a symbolism in this journey, as the Llyn peninsula gets ever starker as you move down it, leaving behind the clutter and detritus of civilisation, even as the land grows narrower and narrower until, at the end, it plunges into the sea. It was hardly the parish that a clergyman ambitious for preferment would have chosen, and some of his flock were rather surprised to learn that their priest was a famous poet.
For a man whose life was spent in the service of the Word made flesh, and in using words in a sublime way, Thomas’ relationship with words was a conflicted one. Born in an era when the speaking of Welsh tended to be confined to the peripheries, Thomas’ first language was English, and although he learned Welsh in his thirties, he could never write poetry in it. Destined for the cloth from an early age, and a conscientious pastor, Thomas nonetheless wrestled with the silences of God and with his absence, and those themes run through his poems like blood down the Cross. Some, there were, who alleged that he was in fact more like an atheist, but such critics missed what was in the silence, and the epiphanies which hinted at what could not be spoken.
Thomas himself said he thought there was no conflict between his role as priest and poet, because poetry was metaphor, and religion was also metaphor. He saw no conflict between administering the Christian sacraments, which were metaphor, and administering the metaphor of poetry. Predictably, some reacted to this as though he had said that Christianity was merely a metaphor, but Thomas used words with more care than his critics expended on reading them if they thought this. By ‘metaphor’, Thomas meant “an attempt to convey an experience of a kind of new life, an eruption of the deity into ordinary life, a lifting up of ordinary life into a higher level.”
Silence was one of Thomas’ great themes – as was kneeling in it in prayer. He wrote of:
Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
It might seem as though what the poet wanted was what we all want, for God to speak, but the silence itself held something valuable, as he commented at the end of the poem:
Prompt me, God;
But not yet.
When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.
In our clamant world where words come cheap and silence is all but impossible, Thomas knew its true value – but also its cost. But he offered no easy platitudes about that being the place where we could rest with God and contemplate him. Sometimes, no words came, but epiphanies did:
Was he balked by silence?
He kneeled long
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.
Elsewhere he noted:
But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep
of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean.
We launch the armada of
our thoughts on, never arriving.
It is a presence, then,
whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still
And what was to be found in those silences?
Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences.
Is this where God hides
From my searching?
I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
As the priest observed, the poet noticed:
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
That theme of the ‘untenanted Cross’ is one to which Thomas returns on many forms, and it is little wonder that his fellow Welsh Christian poet, Rowan Williams, should have called him the ‘articulator of uneasy faith’.
Sometimes we hear a priest saying that God’s absence is much the same as his presence, but Thomas could not rest easy with what sounded like a platitude, but had to wrestle with it and what it might mean.
It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter
from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism
of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews
at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?
Here Thomas confronts the usual answers offered in our age – modernisation of liturgy, become more ‘relevant’, without seeing in any of it an answer to the question he poses, and so he returns, in the end to the fact that he needs to ask the questions, and that very need may be the answer he is looking for.
Thomas was essentially a Christian apophatic poet. This Eastern Orthodox way of doing theology is a method of approach rooted in humility, in the recognition that though we can only describe God using language, that medium is an inadequate one to describe the Ineffable and the Eternal.
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.
Since God is ineffable, even to assign ‘being’ to him in the way we do to ourselves, may well be to say more than we can know. To those who want a simple and comforting faith, there is nothing here, because Thomas did not find faith comfortable, and he refused to settle for the pious waffle which says God’s absence is the same as his presence, because he knew from experience it was not so – and it is that fact that he knew the difference which allows us still to say that Thomas is a great Christian poet. An orthodox one? Hardly, that is not the function of mystic or the bard. One of Thomas’ late poems, Evening, takes us where we need to go at the last:
Let us stand then, in the interval
of our wounding, till the silence
turn golden and love is
a moment eternally overflowing