Nailing God-Questions to Crossed Pieces of Wood | Inspired by R.S. Thomas

bardsey island cross

Cross on Bardsey Island, Wales

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.

bardsey island

The author on Bardsey Island

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.

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7 thoughts on “Nailing God-Questions to Crossed Pieces of Wood | Inspired by R.S. Thomas

  1. I listened to the church service on my radio. It was an excellent service based on the theme of wisdom. (In my daily prayers for myself I always start with “prayer for the wisdom to know what to do, the strength and energy to do it, and that I will do it with compassion and patience.”

    Then, I came to the computer and read you new entry. Thank for a sermon which was even more beautiful, moving and inspiring than the one heard moments earlier. Thank you so much.

    • Thank you, Barbara. This was a post that I felt impelled from deep inside to write. There will be more “Bardsey posts,” for my Bardsey pilgrimage was a day overflowing with wonder.

  2. “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. . . .”
    reminds me of my time with Sara Comings a Cherokee elder who invited me to sit with her and her clan during a stomp dance. As I experienced God’s presence in the community dancing and songs on that dark night, I remember her patience with my wonder. She gently explained that her ancestors never needed to hear the gospel because it had already come to them. Christ was everywhere all around them and when the European missionaries shared the Christian Bible and the prayers they nodded and knew.

    Also “Those people who present themselves as having God-answers to all our questions, are, in fact, making up those answers.” is an affirmation as I preached communally about the theodicy question today – God’s will – I think not. And yet for all my theologizing it is still mystery.

    I read this post at least three times and will probably return for many more readings. Your vulnerability before “two pieces of driftwood fastened together to form a cross” comes through and touches my heart. Thank you dear friend.

  3. “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. . . .”
    reminds me of my time with Nancy Cummings, a Cherokee elder, who invited me to sit with her and her clan during a stomp dance. As I experienced God’s presence in the community dancing and songs on that dark night, I remember her patience with my wonder. She gently explained that her ancestors never needed to hear the gospel because it had already come to them. Christ was everywhere all around them and when the European missionaries shared the Christian Bible and the prayers they nodded and knew.

    Also “Those people who present themselves as having God-answers to all our questions, are, in fact, making up those answers.” is an affirmation as I preached communally about the theodicy question today – God’s will – I think not. And yet for all my theologizing it is still mystery.

    I read this post at least three times and will probably return for many more readings. Your vulnerability before “two pieces of driftwood fastened together to form a cross” comes through and touches my heart. Thank you dear friend.

    • I think, Suzanne, that Celtic spirituality and Native American spirituality have much in common. Both are centered in nature . . . but nature as open to the Transcendent. Neither is flesh-denying, joy-denying. My Bardsey Pilgrimage (I’ve nearly completed my account of it) will live with me for the rest of my life; my Pilgrim Shell (a Pen Llyn queen scallop shell) has its own special place in my home.

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