Just two pieces of driftwood fastened together to form a cross, with a piece of cloth draped over it and a circlet of brambles crowning it. On the table at its base, a wooden mallet and some nails.
I used the mallet to nail something invisible to the cross.
There’s a backstory, of course. For many years, Bardsey, an island off of the tip of the Llŷn peninsula in Wales, had been a pilgrimage goal, probably unreachable for me.
The island may have had human inhabitants during the Bronze Age, but it enters history with persons seeking to live as Christians: Celtic solitaries, beginning in the sixth century; Augustinian monks, arriving in the 1100s; Calvinistic Methodists, sobering the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, the spirituality of Bardsey has a fresh, green Celtic feel.
Celtic believers experienced God’s presence, not only in buildings constructed with stones of the fields, but also in the fields where the stones were gathered.
So what I anticipated when I ventured out on my Bardsey Pilgrimage was an experience similar to the one R. S. Thomas describes. Writing about a moor, he says:
It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God was there made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In movement of the wind over grass. . . .
With my pilgrim guide, I walked on soft foot uphill from the Bardsey boat landing. Within moments, I was in church (but not a church building), enveloped in quietness and peace. Where, in the words of Bardsey poet Christine Evans, you find “a host of presences / drowsing, their wings too fine to see.” Where past, present, and future are Now. As RS remarks, “tenses / were out of place on that green / island.”
We sauntered on uphill, and my guide led me into a stone-built oratory, and there on a table rested two pieces of driftwood fastened together to form a cross. A piece of cloth was draped over it and a circlet of brambles crowned it. A wooden mallet and some nails were at its base. And once again I thought of a poem by RS:
. . . There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
I used the mallet to nail my questions to the cross.
Then my guide read aloud RS’s poem “Pilgrimages,” which closes with these lines:
. . . Was the pilgrimage
I made to come to my own
self, to learn that in times
like these and for one like me
God will never be plain and
out there, but dark rather and
inexplicable, as though he were in here?
RS knows, Celtic spirituality knows, that God leaves unanswered our questions about why life is as life is. Those people who present themselves as having God-answers to all our questions, are, in fact, making up those answers.
So we nail our God-questions to the post-resurrection cross, the “untenanted cross,” and live and love our way through life in “the darkness” that “is the deepening shadow / of [God’s] presence.”
Poems quoted in this post:
“It was like a church to me” – “The Moor,” Pietà (1966), 24.
“a host of presences” – “Enlli” (Bardsey), Christine Evans, Selected Poems (2003), 85.
“tenses / were out of place” – “That Place,” Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), 8.
“There is no other sound” – “In Church,” Pietà (1966), 44.
“Was the pilgrimage” – “Pilgrimages,” Frequencies (1978), 52.
“The darkness / is the deepening shadow / of your presence” – “Alive,” Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), 51.