J.S. Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and R.S. Thomas’s Uninhabited Cross

indexI came away from Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall on April 4th, bathed in music and blood.

That was my response to The Passion According to St. Matthew, which the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by its Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, presented on Holy Saturday.

Bach’s music held me in thrall, while I grouched silently about the theology, which was three hours of wallowing in sin. The only remedy for which was Jesus’s bloody death. In the words of a 21st century hymn: “On the cross as Jesus died, / the wrath of God was satisfied.”

Also, the Saint Matthew Passion sings the message that Jews, generation after generation, are to bear responsibility for Jesus’s blood.

R.S. Thomas should have been Bach’s librettist. He does not close his eyes to sinfulness:

Yes, that’s how I was, . . .
Careless of the claim
Of the world’s sick
Or the world’s poor; . . .

Nearing the end of the same book, he asks:

Why are my hands this way
That they will not do as I say?

RS acknowledges alienation from God – the sense of not living as God intends us to live. But RS does not belabor us with self-flagellant poetry as Bach’s librettist does. Nor does RS, with a few exceptions, interpret the crucifixion sacrificially. Rather, he views the no-longer-inhabited cross as representing the arms of God outstretched to enfold us in love:

. . . . .

Some of us run, some loiter;
some of us turn aside

to erect the Calvary
that is our signpost, arms

pointing in opposite directions
to bring us in the end

to the same place, so impossible
is it to escape love. . . .

For RS, the cross to be hymned is

. . . 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.

 

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

“Yes, that’s how I was” – “Judgment Day,” Tares (1961), 20.

“Why are my hands this way” – “Here,” Tares, 43.

“Some of us run, some loiter” – “The Word,” Mass for Hard Times (1992), 71.

“Not the empty tomb” – untitled poem, Counterpoint (1990), 37.

RST … FDR … and Birdwatching

rs thomas with birdwatching glasses“In that far-off place, with myriads of birds waking up. It was quite impossible to think much of the horrors of war.”

So wrote Daisy Suckley, remembering how her cousin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, settled his nerves while awaiting news of the outcome of the Battle of Midway in May of 1942. If successful, FDR recognized, Midway would be the second marker, after the Doolittle bombing of Tokyo, on the American road to victory over the Japanese Empire.

But there was the President, getting up at 2:00 a.m. to go birding: “Total for day 108 species,” he noted with satisfaction, signing his checklist “Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

Imagine the gotcha-glee of today’s reporters and bloggers if they were to nab President Obama watching birds during, say, the Charlie Hebdo horrors in Paris. Fortunately, only Daisy Suckley and a few others knew FDR was birding as he waited for cables from Midway. And, as Daisy noted, “It did him lots of good.”

Was there also a message for him from God? R.S. Thomas received one:

A message from God
delivered by a bird
at my window, offering friendship.
Listen. Such language!
Who said God was without
speech? Every word an injection
to make me smile. Meet me,
it says, tomorrow, here
at the same time and you will remember
how wonderful today
was: no pain, no worry;
irrelevant the mystery if
unsolved. I gave you the X-ray
eye for you to use, not
to prospect, but to discover
the unmalignancy of love’s
growth. You were a patient, too,
anaesthetised on truth’s table,
with life operating on you
with a green scalpel. Meet me, tomorrow,
I say, and I will sing it all over
Again for you, when you have come to.

For RS, watching for a rare bird to soar through the field of his binoculars was training in silence and patience, preparing him for rare and fleeting experiences of God’s presence in the natural world.

For FDR, on the other hand, birdwatching was a momentary stay against anxiety at a time when he was trying on the mantle of command, having discovered that he could not depend upon his generals and admirals to look strategically at the whole world.

 

Quotes in this post:

“In that far-off place” – Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 (2014), 275.

“A message from God” – “The Message,” Destinations (1985), 7.

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 and the Throbbing of Bells

saint hywyn aberdaron wales

Saint Hywyn’s church, Aberdaron, Wales

Metal clanged against metal, drowning out the solos of the birds, as I enjoyed a late-morning walk on this year’s Martin Luther King holiday. Someone was ringing the bell at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, and it sounded as if iron ore from the nearby quarry had come to life.

The throbbing against my eardrums turned my thoughts to poets who celebrated bells, often hearing them as bells of glory. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Betjeman, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, . . .

“Ring out, wild bells,” cries Tennyson, cheering the bells of New Year’s Eve:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
…………The flying cloud, the frosty light:
…………The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
…………Ring happy bells, across the snow:
…………The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

. . . .

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
…………And ancient forms of party strife;
…………Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

. . . .

Ring in the valiant man and free,
…………The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
…………Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Tennyson is a nineteenth-century optimist, buoyant in his belief that party strife is dying, that purer laws are being born; that darkness is dissipating, that the Messiah is coming.

There’s nothing of Tennyson’s exuberance, his bravado in R. S. Thomas . . . but . . . perhaps . . . there will be a throbbing of bells:

I have seen it standing up grey,
Gaunt, as though no sunlight
Could ever thaw out the music
Of its great bell; terrible
In its own way, for religion
Is like that. There are times
When a black frost is upon
One’s whole being, and the heart
In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

But who is to know? Always,
Even in winter in the cold
Of a stone church, on his knees
Someone is praying, whose prayers fall
Steadily through the hard spell
Of weather that is between God
And himself. Perhaps they are warm rain
That brings the sun and afterwards flowers
On the raw graves and throbbing of bells.

To my ear, Tennyson pulls the bell rope of optimism, Thomas tugs the bell rope of faith.

 

Poems quoted in this post:

“Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky” – “In Memoriam” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; section 56.

“I have seen it standing up grey” – “The Belfry,” Pietà (1966), 29.

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.

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.