“How But in Custom and in Ceremony?” | A Memory of R.S. Thomas

RS Thomas at Porth Neigwl

R.S. Thomas at Porth Neigwl, August 2012

It’s a small memory of what some may call an unremarkable incident, but for me it’s a mind-ventilating moment in my relationship with R. S. Thomas.

Thomas was showing me Saint Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron, the parish of which he was vicar from 1967 until 1978, when he retired, and he and Elsi moved to a stone cottage at Porth Neigwl, “Hell’s Mouth.”

Before our visit to the church, Thomas had taken me to the cottage and allowed me to photograph him standing (too close to the edge?) with his back to “Hell’s Mouth.” Now, in the church, I looked at the pulpit from which he had preached and asked if he’d let me take a picture of him standing in it.

Frosty rejoinder: “I never step into the pulpit except in clerical collar, cassock, and surplice.”

He was wearing his signature red necktie, so I stowed my camera.

But I wondered: Here’s a modern man, who forthrightly expresses his doubts, who appropriates the scientific understanding of the world, who interprets the Bible metaphorically not literally. Why, then, this reverence for an antique wooden structure that enables the preacher to be seen and heard in a church building?

The answer that came to me is found in “A Prayer for my Daughter” by W. B. Yeats:

How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?

One year, my wife and I found ourselves so mired in church activities that we brushed aside the idea of putting up a Christmas tree. After all, is celebrating the birth of Jesus dependent upon a tree?

Yes, it is, Peter and Suzanne declared when they arrived. So out they went, bought a tree, schlepped the decorations from the attic, and soon the customary yuletide evergreen graced the parsonage.

How but in custom and ceremony . . . .

R. S. Thomas knew that in a time of doubt, you do not wait for an experience of God’s presence before you participate in the customs and ceremonies of religion. Rather, you participate in those customs and ceremonies as the ground base on which God, in God’s time, will play the melodies of belief.

And Thomas’s tradition, the Anglican tradition, is rich in the time-honored poetic prose of the Book of Common Prayer, which also guides the attire of Anglican priests and their movements and actions within sacred space.

So one way to keep from toppling over backwards into Hell’s Mouth is to maintain the customs and ceremonies out of which innocence and beauty and belief in God are born.

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2 thoughts on ““How But in Custom and in Ceremony?” | A Memory of R.S. Thomas

  1. I’m mulling over the attractive phrase “mind-ventilating” and trusting it has nothing to do with a cowboy’s threat to “ventilate you”. I then think of stuffy attics, but stop because the objects there don’t change whereas mind-objects do, at least mine–at least until they are repeated/replicated a few times (when they replace the original).

    • First off, I borrowed (purloined, stole?) the phrase idea from RST. When I find the source, I’ll write a blog and place it in RST’s context. For me, it’s a matter of blowing stale thinking out of my mind. I had thought that because RST was a modern doubter-believer, that he probably sat loose to the customs and ceremonies of his denomination. So the incident at Saint Hywyn’s ventilated my mind. In a larger context, there is stale air today in politics, the church, academia, and pop culture. Perhaps the stalest air is pop culture’s belief that noise and energy and “the new” is where it’s at.

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