R. S. Thomas describes Czechoslovakia during the Communist era:
. . . The time
told by their church
bells was a time stipulated
primarily by the Party. Could we have known
that back of their faces hope
ticked to alternative rhythms;
that within the arteries
of the state itself the anti-coagulating
influences were at work?
The anonymous had been busy removing Communist plaque from the arteries of the body politic.
Thomas – the poet, priest, prophet – sensed a truth that acolytes of President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher continue to ignore: that the pressure from outside the Communist world was effective only because the anonymous was busy within it.
Thomas the priest was often dejected because church bells were calling fewer and fewer people to the sacrament of bread and wine; he was downcast because tides of unbelief were lapping at the shores of the Bible.
This erosion continues. “The trajectory of Christianity in terms of baptisms and church attendance,” writes English blogger Melanie McDonagh, “is going inexorably in one direction.”
In the United States, “a third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation,” according to a recent Gallop survey.
Thomas the priest found this downward trend disheartening, but Thomas the poet-prophet heard the anonymous whispering:
. . . In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth’s
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.
Increasing numbers of Americans, according to a recent Gallop poll, refer to themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
The anonymous is busy.
Why all this use of “anonymous”? Didn’t Thomas believe in God?
Yes, Thomas said, again and again, that he always believed in God.
But following the lead of the Bible, Thomas was reticent about naming God. It’s impossible to imagine him scoring a goal, then dropping to his knees and shooting a pointing finger at the sky.
Thomas, unlike many Bible-waving preachers and many self-proclaiming believers, declined to name the voice that sounded in his ear and the stranger with whom he wrestled.
A voice, emanating from a bush that burned but was not burned up, sounded in the ear of Moses, but when Moses asked the voice for its name, it opted for anonymity, simply saying: “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:1-15).
Jacob, suddenly, in the dark of night, found himself wrestling with an embodied mystery. When he asked for a name, the stranger gave Jacob a new name, but said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” Then vanished before Jacob, now named Israel, could answer (Genesis 32:22-31).
Thomas – the priest, poet, prophet – preserves this reticence:
. . . Beyond
the stars are more stars where love, perhaps,
or intellect or the anonymous is busy.
Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:
“In the loveliest of their cities” – “Prague Spring,” Residues (2002), 67.
“In cities that have outgrown” – “The Moon in Lleyn,” Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), 30-31.
“Beyond the stars” – “The Promise,” No Truce with the Furies (1995), 59.