R. S. Thomas liked-human built churches that seem to be pushing up out of the ground as naturally as a rock formation.
Although he never visited the adobe church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi in Rancho de Taos, New Mexico, I think he would have liked Georgia O’Keefe’s painting of it. For the church appears to be rising from the desert soil – the soil that is the basic ingredient of the mud-bricks and mud-plaster used by its builders.
Two of Thomas’s favorite Welsh chapels, Maes-yr-Onnen and Soar-y-Mynydd, are constructed with stones gathered from nearby fields and mountains, and they nestle into their settings as integral parts of the landscape.
Thomas tells us that he visited both chapels during the summer of 1947, attracted by their “lonely wild romantic settings.” Each chapel, by the time he wrote an article about them the next year, had taken on a symbolic significance.
In his brief piece titled “Two Chapels,” Thomas calls Maes-yr-Onnen “The Chapel of the Spirit” and Soar-y-Mynydd “The Chapel of the Soul.” I’ll save the latter for another blog; for now, “The Chapel of the Spirit.”
“I went [to Maes-yr-Onnen],” Thomas tells us, “on a sunny morning in August with the East wind chasing the clouds across the blue sky. . . . The chapel stood in the fields, amidst the waving grass, its roof covered with a layer of yellow lichen. There were tall nettles growing around and at its side there swayed a big old tree like someone leaning forward to listen to the sermon.”
Thomas translated that prose into this poem:
Though I describe it stone by stone, the chapel
Left stranded in the hurrying grass,
Painting faithfully the mossed tiles and the tree,
The one listener to the long homily
Of the ministering wind, and the dry, locked doors,
And the stale piety, mouldering within;
You cannot share with me the rarer air,
Blue as a flower . . . .
Because no one was there to unlock the door, Thomas stretched himself out on the grass and “had a vision, in which [he] could comprehend the breadth and length and depth and height of the mystery of creation.”
“It might have been the first day of Creation,” he continues, “and myself one of the first men. Might have been? No it was the first day. The world was recreated before my eyes. The dew of its creation was on everything, and I fell to my knees and praised God – a young man worshiping a young God, for surely that is what our God is.”
Centuries of Christian art and theology have left us with an old-god image of God – white-haired, long-bearded, the Ancient of Days. If a color were to be assigned to this God, it would be gray. Green, however, is the color of Thomas’s young God, the God of Springtime, the God of re-emerging life.
In the section of Thomas’s poem that we looked at above, the poet tells us we cannot share with him the “rarer air / Blue as a flower” of his visit to Maes-yr-Onnen. At the poem’s end, he writes:
You cannot hear as I, incredulous, heard
Up in the rafters, where the bell should ring,
The wild, sweet singing of Rhiannon’s birds.
To search the web for Rhiannon’s birds is to discover what Thomas experienced at Maes-yr-Onnen “on a sunny morning in August.”
The hymning of Rhiannon’s birds suspends time. Their “wild, sweet singing” opens a window in the mundane through which rays of eternity flow.
When R. S. Thomas heard Rhiannon’s choir, he experienced a dream-vision, in which he received the revelation that “God is a young God: the God of the fresh Spring.”
Like Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Thomas could say: “I felt / The universe feel Love.”
Quotes used in this blog:
The prose quotes are from “Two Chapels,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, 36-40.
“Though I describe it stone by stone, the chapel” – “Maes-yr-Onnen,” An Acre of Land, 10.
“I felt / The universe feel Love” – Dante, The Divine Comedy, translated by Clive James, 60.