“The Meaning Is in the Waiting” | Poems of R.S. Thomas

A church in Roncesvalles.

A church in Roncesvalles.

Several years ago, a husband and wife, both doubters, his skepticism more square-jawed than hers, walked the French section of the pilgrimage trail of San Jacques. In Burgundy, along the way from Vézelay to Autun to Mâcon, they entered, if they found an unlocked door, one Romanesque church after another. Often she looked for a taper to light for a reason he couldn’t fathom, while he sat, resting his snarling hips and knees, and studied the works of art.

That they were pilgrims of some sort was clear to them. But what, he asked himself, again and again, were they seeking? Weight loss for him, David Downie, a food writer of note? Scenic photographs for her, Alison Harris, an honored photographer? Several months away from frenetic Paris? An opening to something beyond muddy trails, roadside crosses, neatnik vineyards, and garlic-buttered escargot for dinner?

Walking . . . anticipating . . . waiting . . . for what?

While reading Downie’s account of a skeptic pilgrim’s walk, I experienced an R. S. Thomas earworm: “The meaning is in the waiting.”

That is the last line of his poem “Kneeling,” which begins:

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; . . .
. . . 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.

What meaning is disclosed in the waiting? If Thomas wanted to tell us, he’d have written a story or an essay. As is, we must wait, while reading and rereading his poem, for a portion of meaning to be served by whatever power it is that prepares thoughts for us to savor.

My first serving was the opening sentence of Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Truth”: “What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.”

Truth is a byproduct of hanging around . . . staying . . . waiting. Waiting permits “truth” to become evident, even if it’s not “the whole truth” and not “nothing but the truth.” Waiting for some measure of truth to appear is why good criminal codes provide for prolonged jury trials.

But Pilate refused to wait.

Because power acknowledges no need to wait, and Pilate represented power, the power of the Roman Empire; the Empire that saw itself as standing at the front of the line of nations.

The Pilates of this world smirk at the idea of waiting. Waiting is for the powerless, for those who bring up the end of every line.

What do those end-of-liners learn as they wait . . . and wait?

Hope.

The meaning they find in waiting is the recognition that even taking our next breath is a matter of hope. All the power in the world cannot promise us a next inhalation and exhalation. Powerless and powerful alike live in the hope of going on living.

This is why the music of the powerless – music such as African-American spirituals and Bourbon Street jazz – is so powerful: It makes hope audible and danceable.

I heard this hope during a Sunday jazz brunch at the Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. When the strolling trumpeter, Alvin Alcorn, came to our table, I shook hands with him with something in my palm, then asked him to play “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” He did, and his trumpet whispered . . . whispered so softly right up to my wife’s ear, that she, who cringes when glassware clinks going into the dishwasher, smiled serenely.

Did any insight, any meaning come out of David Downie’s walking and waiting? Yes; as he and Alison neared Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees, the end of their walk, David realized: “I’d developed an affinity for infinity, a fondness for finitude.”

Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“Moments of great calm” – “Kneeling,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 32.

The prose quote is from David Downie, Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James (New York: Pegasus, 2013), 312.

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