R.S. Thomas and the People Who Think They Live on the Main Road to God

roadI wish drivers wouldn’t tempt me to grumble on the way to church.

It was, after all, the Sunday before Christmas. A day to be joyous, right? But there was this hulking black SUV in front of me, its two bumper stickers blasting me with: Jesus said, “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7).

Yes, Jesus did say that, at least according to some translations. But Jesus said many things, such as “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19) and “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Luke 6:37). So why is “born again” used to badger all and sundry into accepting one particular view of salvation?

Because it is easier to turn Jesus into a dogma that must be believed, than it is to follow him as a man who invites us to love as he loves.

There are many loving people who say, “I was born again when I accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal savior.”

Others use the formulaic “I’m a born-again believer” as their guarantee of accommodation in heaven. Also, they use the born-again mantra as, in the words of Frank Bruni, “a fig leaf for intolerance” – intolerance of different religions, races, and sexual orientations.

R.S. Thomas responded as a poet-theologian to those who think they hold e-tickets on the only flight to God:

There was part of the parish that few knew.
They lived in houses on the main road
To God, as they thought, managing primly
The day’s dirt, bottling talk
Of birth and marriage in cold eyes;
Nothing to tell in their spick rooms’
Discipline how with its old violence
Grass raged under the floor.

But you knew it, farmer; your hand
Had felt its power, if not your heart
Its loveliness. . . .

This poem speaks to me of God’s green grass and man’s stone structures. How divine freshness rages under the seemingly solid ideas that humans form about pious behavior.

In RS’s poem, men and women who think they live on the main road to God, also suppose that their spick rooms reflect the spick-ness of their lives. That their squeaky clean floors provide a solid foundation for their judgments. That they are speaking for God when they declare what is ‘dirty’ in the sex lives of their neighbors.

Much that they deplore is simply ‘natural’ in the Green Book of God’s revelation. Fresh life rages under the stony doctrines of those who thumb the Black Book of God’s revelation, looking for passages to buttress their prejudices.

There are many roads to God other than the one marked with the sign “Born Again Believer.” There are many ways of expressing true love other than the one marked “Heterosexual Marriage.” No matter what the law says or prudes declare, every child is a legitimate child of God.

RS’s farmer feels the power – and, perhaps, the loveliness – of the grass raging under the floors of those who think they live on the main road to God.

 

Poems of R. S. Thomas used in this post:

“There was part of the parish” – “The Parish,” Tares (1961), 15.

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Where Will R.S. Thomas Show Up Next?

ThomasMertonGriffithWe often find what we’re looking for when we’re looking for something else.

I’m always looking for R. S. Thomas. Recently I found him when I was looking for Thomas Merton’s love affair, and that search began while I was looking for a poem presented as Merton’s “Final Prayer.”

I discovered that the so-called “Final Prayer” is, in fact, the last paragraph of a letter Merton wrote to the poet Czeslaw Milosz on February 28, 1959, which, of course, does not lessen the power of Merton’s words, which sound prescient: “All loyalties have to pass through fire. Much has to be lost. Much in us has to be killed, even much that is best in us.”

Seven years later, Merton tested his loyalty to his vow of chastity when he slid headlong into love with a student nurse. Because it seems to me that Christianity’s traditional theology of sex is screwed up, I decided to follow the spoor of Merton’s experiment with sexual passion through his journal entries for 1966-1967.

After the affair was largely over, he notes that he was healthier when he was expressing his love: “I had much less trouble all around when I was seeing M.” Four days later, he writes: “I definitely do not intend to try to see M. or do anything more about her.”

I was still wondering whether killing his love for M. was good for Merton – good too for M., when R. S. Thomas jumped out of Merton’s journal: “Got a very good letter from Ron Johnson,” Merton writes, on July 3, 1967. “He spoke of having met R. S. Thomas in Wales – lovely description of his unearthly Welsh wife.”

“She was English!” I belabored the book, which shrugged and said, “Take that up with Merton.”

Since that suggestion called for powers I lack, I checked the online catalog for the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, Kentucky, and found an interview with A. M. Allchin about Merton, in which Allchin says that Merton “was interested in R. S. Thomas and quite appreciated him.” Later in the interview, Allchin notes that by 1968 Merton “had this contact with R. S. Thomas and he got interested in the Welsh background in his own family tree.”

Where will RS next appear, just when I’m looking for someone else?

 

Quotes in this post:

“All loyalties have to pass through fire” – Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz (1997), 20.

“I had much less trouble,” “I definitely do not intend,” and “Got a very good letter” – Learning to Love: The Journals of Thomas Merton 1966-1967 (1998), 254, 255, 257.

Victor A. Kramer, “An Interview with Canon A. M. Allchin about Merton,” 245, 249.

R.S. Thomas – Prayer Is Not a Popsy Ping Sort of Thing

popsy pingAmericans often put on the Ritz when they speak – cops don’t get out of their cars, they exit their vehicles.

At Saint Corny by the Quarry where I live, there’s a suite of rooms where you can see a doctor. It used to be called the Clinic, which was easy to say when you called the switchboard – yes, we still have a human being routing calls. But the Clinic has gone upscale to Visiting Physicians’ Office.

A friend in Wales has a thingy in her kitchen called a Popsy Ping. You pop in food, wait for the ping, then pick up a fork. A microwave, of course, but since I’ve never been able to visualize a wave that is micro, I prefer Popsy Ping – I know what pop-in means, and I can hear a ping.

Many believers seem to think that prayer is a popsy-ping sort of thing. You pop in your request, make sure the power level is correct, then wait for a ping to announce that a response is coming.

R.S. Thomas tells God that he no longer prays popsy-ping:

…………..      . . . I would have knelt
long, wrestling with you, wearing
you down. Hear my prayer, Lord, hear
my prayer. As though you were deaf, myriads
of mortals have kept up their shrill
cry, explaining your silence by
their unfitness.

..............       It begins to appear
this is not what prayer is about.
It is the annihilation of difference,
the consciousness of myself in you,
of you in me; the emerging
from the adolescence of nature
into the adult geometry
of the mind. I begin to recognize
you anew, God of form and number.
There are questions we are the solution
to, others whose echoes we must expand
to contain. Circular as our way
is, it leads not back to that snake-haunted
garden, but onward to the tall city
of glass that is the laboratory of the spirit.

In another poem, one in which RS talks about standing in a stream, “dangling a fly / between one depth and another,” he asks, “What is existence / but standing patiently for a while / amid flux?”

What is prayer? Not a popsy-ping sort of thing. But standing patiently and silently for a while amid flux.

 

Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“I would have knelt” – “Emerging,” Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), 1.

“dangling a fly” – “Afon Rhiw,” Mass for Hard Times (1992), 79.

R.S. Thomas: Commerce Cannot Overtop the Christ Child

A Christmas carol confession – sometimes it’s easier to remember a carol’s parody than its original words:

While Shepherds washed their socks by night,
All seated round the tub,
The Angel of the Lord came down,
And gave their socks a scrub.

England’s laxative-producing Beecham Company issued a Christmas Carol Annual. For one year’s edition, according to the anecdote, the senior Beecham asked his son to write a parody of a familiar carol that would plug Beecham’s unplugging pills. The son – later, Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961), noted orchestra conductor – came up with:

Hark! The herald angels sing
Beecham’s pills are just the thing
Two for a woman, one for a child,
They will make you meek and mild.

Commerce Cannot Overtop the Christ ChildBeecham’s parody was not the first step in the commercialization of Christmas. That step was taken when it was decided, in the fourth century, to observe the birth of Jesus in the bleak mid-winter. At the time of the winter solstice, the celebration of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun. During Saturnalia, the wine-laced, toga-dropping Roman festival honoring the god Saturn.

Ever since the linking of Christ’s Birth with Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, caroling, partying, and spending have run on parallel tracks, with accelerating speed in recent decades. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Accompanied, predictably, by ever increasing spurts of sacred spleen.

R.S. Thomas, on the other hand, simply says that the commercialization of Christmas can never overtop the Christ Child:

Erect capital’s arch;
decorate it with the gilt edge
of the moon. Pave the way to it
with cheques and with credit –

it is still not high enough
for the child to pass under
who comes to us this midnight
invisible as radiation.

Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“Erect capital’s arch” – “Christmas Eve,” No Truce with the Furies (1995), 13.

R.S. Thomas – Not Cut Out To Be An Angel

by Andrew Wyeth

by Andrew Wyeth

I wonder how R. S. Thomas would respond to being remembered as a cut-out angel.

The retirement community where I live had a holiday appeal for contributions to its benevolent care fund, so I wrote a check and noted that it was in memory of R. S. Thomas. Some days later, I walked past a window and noticed paper angels floating on the glass. One was designated “in memory of R. S. Thomas.”

I can see him stooping to look at the inscription, then straightening up to quip: “I’m not cut-out to be an angel.”

Certainly, RS was not cut out to be the angel on the e-Christmas card I received the other day. After clicking and waiting for it to load, I was instructed to click on an angel, which, animated by my click, began to flit like a mechanical butterfly about a Christmas tree. As she fluttered up to candles, they lit up; when she flew by balls, they sang portions of carols. At last, she landed on the top of the tree, and became an ornament herself.

RS’s Christmas poems are not ornamental; they have an edge – no twee angels on his tree:

They came over the snow to the bread’s
purer snow, fumbled it in their huge
hands, put their lips to it
like beasts, stared into the dark chalice
where the wine shone, felt it sharp
on their tongue, shivered as at a sin
remembered, and heard love cry
momentarily in their hearts’ manger.

They rose and went back to their poor
holdings, naked in the bleak light
of December. Their horizon contracted
to the one small, stone-riddled field
with its tree, where the weather was nailing
the appalled body that had asked to be born.

For RS, the tree of Christmas pointed to the tree of Calvary.

Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“They came over the snow” – “Hill Christmas,” Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), 42.

Churches: Stone Monsters Waiting to Spring – R.S. Thomas

Wells Cathedral, beautiful beast

December 7th is remembered in the United States as “a date which will live in infamy,” because roughly 2,400 persons died in that day’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

On August 6th, 1945, when an Armageddon weapon was dropped on Hiroshima, the total number of deaths was at least 25 times that number. But Americans don’t remember it as “a date which will live in infamy.”

Just as Christians often do not see the Church the way R. S. Thomas sometimes sees it:

   . . . the chapel crouches,
a stone monster,
waiting to spring, . . .

Some of today’s Christians see mosques as stone monsters crouching, waiting to spring. But they forget that their churches have been, and in many cases still are, stone monsters crouching, waiting to spring on God’s vast cornucopia of human beings.

Churches spring on historians, scientists, and literary scholars who raise questions about the Bible. They spring on people who decline to be processed by their salvation-machines. They spring on homosexual lovers who want to marry; on heterosexual lovers who do not want to marry. They spring on people of different skin colors who try to enter their sanctuaries.

The behaviors that caused Jesus to spring are, however, the very ones that many churches celebrate or at least tolerate.

Jesus tended to crouch and spring on the rich. But there were no Jesus-like protesters when the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, announced that it was going to spend $90 million to build a new sanctuary and make other improvements to church property.

I think RS would see that humongously expensive edifice as an example of over-furnishing the Christian faith:

We have over-furnished
our faith. Our churches
are as limousines in the procession
towards heaven.

Jesus cared for the last, the least, the lost. Many today who identify themselves as his followers complain about being forced to pay high taxes to care for those very persons.

Jesus said that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). The taking continues, the perishing continues. And there are persons who identify themselves as followers of Jesus who insist on their right to pack heat in the house of the Prince of Peace.

RS provides a picture of the message that churches should proclaim and embody:

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

 

Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“. . . the chapel crouches” – “A Land,” Welsh Airs (1987), 43.

“We have over-furnished” – “Not the empty tomb,” Counterpoint (1990), 37.

“It’s a long way off but inside it” – “The Kingdom,” H’m (1972). 34.

May Peace in the Mind Be Peace in the Hand | R.S. Thomas

Poppies Veterans DayEarlier this month, November 11th, Veterans Day was observed in the United States. Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom. Armistice de la Première Guerre mondiale in France.

On November 11, 2001, my wife and I stood silently outside Notre Dame, watching elderly men, medals pinned to their chests, holding their backs straight, lining up to enter the cathedral for a service of remembrance.

On November 11, 1994, we had dinner with R. S. Thomas and Betty. Two days later, we sat in the choir of Saint David’s Cathedral, noticing the red poppies pinned to the vestments of the clergy. And I remembered RS’s poem:

The Iron Lady became
rusty. Generals haunted
unstaffed corridors, clanking
their medals. On the imagination’s

barbed wire a dove sat,
its eyes red as the poppies
that were being hawked in aid
of casualties of the next war.

I am not in any way indifferent to the blood-red suffering and dying remembered on November 11th.

Don, a cherished friend who died several years ago, was the navigator for a flight of planes that dropped paratroopers behind the German lines on D-Day. His stories and my own visit to the Normandy beaches and cemeteries bring a moistening of the eye.

But . . . too often November 11th brings a celebration of war instead of an act of penitence for our human failure to live as brothers and sisters in God’s world.

This year, on November 11th, Michael Evans posted another poem by RS on Facebook; because I’m not Facebooked, it was forwarded to me by a friend in Wales:

This is my child;
that is yours. Let
peace be between them
when they grow up.

They are far off
now; let it not
be through war they are brought
near. Their languages

are different. Let them both
learn it is peace
in the hand is the translation
of peace in the mind.

 

Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“The Iron Lady became” – “Not Blonde,” Mass for Hard Times (1992), 24.

“This is my child” – “Pact,” R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems (2013), 178.