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.