This Blogger Reappears . . . An Interview . . . R.S. Thomas and Easter

rs thomas with birdwatching glasses croppedThis is an appropriate day for a new post to emerge after weeks of tomb-like darkness.

As always, none of my God-questions were answered during Lent, but I did find it possible to nail some of them “one by one to an untenanted cross,” and then to look into my mind and see them “folded and in a place / by themselves, like the piled graveclothes of love’s risen body.”

Echoes of R. S. Thomas? Yes.

Before amplifying the echoes, let me invite you to listen to me speaking about RS on Ron Way’s Author Talk. Dropping modesty like RS’s tree undressing, I’ll quote what Way says: “This interview was one of the most delightful in memory. What a joy to meet R. S. Thomas for the first time through the eyes of John McEllhenney and his book, A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief.

Now, back to Thomas and Easter.

RS looks at the cross from the empty tomb. So it is a cross without a tenant. A cross to which to nail our unanswered God-questions. Questions like the one that Jesus asked while he was tenanting the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

Referring to the silences of an empty church, RS asks: “Is this where God hides / From my searching?” Continuing to listen, he concludes:

 ….  . . . 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.

In a poem titled “The Answer,” published twelve years later, RS writes:

….  . . . There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

RS’s placement of lie at the end of the line causes our eye, our voice, our mind, to stop short and consider: Is there something not honest about Why?-God questions?

Then we drop down to the next line and discover our God-questions lying inside our tomb-like minds, “folded and in a place / by themselves, like the piled / graveclothes of love’s risen body.”

Finally, on this Easter Day, after a winter that that was an increasingly unwelcome tenant in my part of the world, these lines:

….  ….               . . . Now
in the small hours
of belief the one eloquence

to master is that
of the bowed head, the bent
knee, waiting, as at the end

of a hard winter
for one flower to open
on the mind’s tree of thorns.

 

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

“Is this where God hides . . . . There is no other sound” – “In Church,” Pietà (1966), 44.

“There have been times” – “The Answer,” Frequencies (1978), 46.

“Now / in the small hours” – “Waiting,” Between Here and Now (1981), 83.

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.

“The Piled Graveclothes of Love’s Risen Body” | Poems of R.S. Thomas

It’s the doorbell!

A kind friend, wondering if he could do anything for me, grounded as I was with bursitis of the hip.

Kind, but an interruption, and my blog-idea eloped with the kindness.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, jotted this laconic entry in his diary on November 2, 1735: “11:30 Religious talk with Mrs. Mackay, interrupted.”

Was Wesley’s spiritual counseling interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock”? It could have been, if Wesley had been in the Exmoor region of his native England, but he was a missionary in England’s Georgia Colony.

It was the poet Coleridge who was interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock,” when he, Coleridge, was trying to get “Kubla Kahn” down on paper.

While Coleridge was sleeping, all of the poem had drug-dreamed itself into being. So as soon as he woke up, he began to pen it down, line after line, until there came a knocking at the door. It was the Porlock nuisance, and he detained Coleridge so long that, when he got back to his desk, all of the poem, “with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images,” had scooted off with the importunate Porlocker.

Blasted interruptions!

Now it’s my RS-dar that’s bleeping. I wonder if it’s bouncing off of a poem in which Thomas mentions “a person on business from Porlock.”

I’ll scan the contents of his collected poems. No luck.

Nothing to do but hobble down the hall to the filing cabinet.

Before giving my R. S. Thomas collection to the Drew University Library, I made photo copies of the poems in his early books. Secondhand copies of his later books are still on my computer-side shelf.

Retrieving the binder, I go back to my chair, and page through it.

Voilà!

Here it is, “A Person from Porlock,” in which we see Thomas in his study, books scattered about on the floor, pen ready to put down on paper the lines he’d written in his head.

A knocking on the front door. Maybe it’ll stop. No such luck. To answer, or not to answer?

He gets up, reluctantly, and goes to the door. A “casual caller.”

Back at his writing table, he finds a poem that has been maimed “By the casual caller, the chance cipher that jogs / The poet’s elbow, spilling the cupped dream.”

Life’s casual callers jog our elbows and spill many a cupped dream.

The caller may be the bursitis of the hip that spilled my cupped dream of a winter week in the Florida sunshine.

Or the phone call that makes us forget what we wanted to add to our shopping list.

Or the casual caller may be “the satan” of the book of Job.

Translations that identify this biblical personage as capital “S” Satan, or as the Devil, are incorrect. He’s a private investigator, or, if you like, an agent provocateur working for God.

“Casual,” of course, is not the adjective of choice when the caller is the biblical “the satan.” For the cupped dream that is spilled may be something close to life’s core: fractured health, the death of someone dearly loved, the massacre of children in Newtown, Connecticut.

Then we storm at God, in the words of Thomas, “with the eloquence / of the abused heart.”

In a future blog, I plan to discuss my understanding of Thomas as a Jobian-Christian.

For now, let me suggest that sometimes the spilling of a cupped dream makes way for something better – even for something utterly new.

Several days after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, two of his disciples were walking the road to Emmaus, discussing the spilling of their cupped dream; how they had “hoped that [Jesus] was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).

But now his body was imprisoned in a tomb of stone.

Why do such terrible things happen, they questioned, to good people?

A stranger joined the down-hearted disciples, and soon he was using the Hebrew prophets to give a biblical slant to the crucifixion of Jesus.

When they reached Emmaus, the disciples invited the stranger to eat supper with them. As “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them,” they recognized him: It was Jesus!

And immediately he “vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:30-31).

The spilling of the disciples’ cupped dream of Jesus of Nazareth created an emptiness in their lives, into which God poured the Risen Christ.

R. S. Thomas tells us about his struggles with Why questions. Questions such as the ones that plagued Job, causing him to cry out “with the eloquence / of the abused heart.” Questions such as why did a gunman open fire in a packed Colorado theatre?

Thomas tells us what, at last, happened to his tormenting questions:

. . . There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

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

“By the casual caller, the chance cipher that jogs” – “A Person from Porlock,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 103.

“with the eloquence / of the abused heart” – “At It,” Frequencies, 15.

“There have been times” – “The Answer,” Frequencies, 46.