R.S. Thomas – A Poet for a Doubting-Believer’s Easter

St Hywyn's Churchyard, Aberdaron, Wales

St Hywyn’s churchyard Aberdaron Wales

The empty tomb will always be open to question.

Historians will continue to doubt the objectivity of the witnesses, believers will continue to believe their accounts. And I, trained to be an historian and ordained to be a preacher, will continue to live in the tension between doubt and belief.

R. S. Thomas, priest and poet, highlights this tension by describing two gardens, his kitchen garden and his cemetery garden. In the first, he plants vegetables; in the second, the bodies of parishioners:

A priest has two gardens, one feeding the body and one the mind. He is trained more for the one than the other. He discovers a quicker calendar in his own garden. What he plants comes up soon. In the church-yard garden everything waits. Is the meaning, then, in the waiting? The stones face expectantly towards the east.

Every spring, Thomas plants dead-looking seeds in the soil; every summer, there’s new life on the dinner table. But he is still waiting, as priests have waited for two thousand years, for the Son to appear in the east.

R.S. does not, however, allow doubt to poison his waiting. He continues to believe in God. And he refers, in a poem written near the close of his earthly existence, to life after death as “an impalpable possibility / for faith’s fingertips to explore.”

The risen Jesus invited Thomas, the doubter, to “put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And Thomas answered Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27-28)

. . . an impalpable possibility / for faith’s fingertips to explore.

My quarrel with so much Easter preaching is that it explores the mystery of the risen Jesus with the mind’s fist, not faith’s fingertips. It attempts to make the empty tomb irrefutable evidence of the resurrection.

R. S. Thomas, on the other hand, refuses to touch the empty tomb, opting rather to explore the uninhabited cross with faith’s fingertips:

Not the empty tomb
but the uninhabited
cross. Look long enough
and you will see the arms
put on leaves. Not a crown
of thorns, but a crown of flowers
haloing it, with a bird singing
as though perched on paradise’s threshold.

We have over-furnished
our faith. Our churches
are as limousines in the procession
towards heaven. But the verities
remain: a de-nuclearized
cross, uncontaminated
by our coinage; the chalice’s
ichor; and one crumb of bread
on the tongue for the bird-like
intelligence to be made tame by.

Thomas sees faith’s living room crowded with furniture – too many fundamental beliefs, too many tchotchkes of piety. But certain truths are unchanging. A cross cleansed of fissionable doctrinal and sermonic materials. The Eucharistic cup with its, in Charles Wesley’s phrase, “Draughts of GOD.” The Eucharistic bread that stills the squirrely, doubting human mind.

 

Prose and poetry of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“A priest has two gardens” – untitled prose paragraph, The Echoes Return Slow (1988), 42.

“an impalpable possibility” – “Easter, I approach,” Uncollected Poems (2013), 173.

“Not the empty tomb” – untitled poem, Counterpoint (1990), 37.

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2 thoughts on “R.S. Thomas – A Poet for a Doubting-Believer’s Easter

  1. for me it is not so much the empty tomb, or the empty cross. It is the irrefutable fact that the frightened, demoralized disciples suddenly became strong witnesses in the face of persecution and death. The only thing that could have made that sudden change was the sure knowledge that Christ had risen.

  2. I had in mind yesterday RS’s image of the cross budding with foliage and flowers, so I searched, unsuccessfully, for this poem, not knowing it’s first line and now I have it. Bendithion helaeth,

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