R.S. Thomas’s Best Poems about God | “Suddenly”

William Blake's representation of the soldiers gambling for Christ's clothes. John (19:23-25).

William Blake’s representation of the soldiers gambling for Christ’s clothes. John (19:23-25).

R. S. Thomas was not a suddenly sort of religious man. Not for him the notion of lugging his soul to salvation’s laundry for a fast wash and dry.

But in one of his best “God” poems, God comes suddenly as Thomas always knew God would come, with nothing remarkable about the occasion except the absence of whoopla.

When God arrives, no trumpet blares, no sermon flares, just an awareness of being filled to overflowing with God – all as the culmination of a lichen-like process.

Thomas speaks of himself as having

                          . . . to learn

from the lichen’s slowness
at work something of the slowness
of the illumination of the self.

As the first lines of “Suddenly” emphasize, preparation for the coming of God is characterized by lichen-growth slowness . . . until, suddenly . . .

As I had always known
he would come, unannounced,
remarkable merely for the absence
of clamour. So truth must appear
to the thinker; so, at a stage
of the experiment, the answer
must quietly emerge.

Thomas’s point may be likened to what sometimes happens after reading one of his own poems again . . . and again . . . and again . . . Suddenly, its seemingly dry branch buds and blooms in our heart. “So truth must appear / to the thinker.”

The poem continues:

                                    I looked
at him, not with the eye
only, but with the whole
of my being, overflowing with
him as a chalice would
with the sea. Yet was he
no more there than before,
his area occupied
by the unhaloed presences.

When God comes, material things are not forced to stand aside, making room for, in John Betjeman’s phrase, “The Maker of the stars and sea.”

Where God is, everyday persons and things retain their places; they remain quotidian, and ecclesiastical authorities do not rush in to distribute golden circlets.

The final section of “Suddenly” contains two biblical allusions.

In John 20:25, the disciple Thomas insists that he won’t believe Jesus is alive . . . “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side.” A week later, Jesus appears and says to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side” (20:27).

The poet Thomas, in contrast with the disciple Thomas, suggests we can put our hand in the One who comes “without consciousness / of his wounds.”

Next, we meet the craps shooters at the cross; again, from John (19:23-25). Four Roman soldiers, after dividing the clothes of Jesus four ways, decide to throw dice to see who will get his seamless tunic.

In Thomas’s poem, the soldiers go on shooting craps . . . while the tunic they covet has become invisible and is being worn by Jesus in his “risen existence.”

You could put your hand
in him without consciousness
of his wounds. The gamblers
at the foot of the unnoticed
cross went on with
their dicing; yet the invisible
garment for which they played
was no longer at stake, but worn
by him in this risen existence.

One of Thomas’s best “God” poems. Or is it about Jesus? RS, I think, would answer: “I wrote the poem, now it’s yours to interpret.”

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

“to learn” – untitled poem, The Echoes Return Slow (1988), 103.
“As I had always known” – “Suddenly,” Laboratories of the Spirit [1975], 32.

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The Commercialization of Christmas and a Poem of R.S. Thomas

rs thomas with birdwatching glassesPredictably, mid-October finds me beginning to Scrooge, by late-November I’m in high Scroogery.

Stores displaying faux mistletoe and fake holly: “Bah humbug!” Elevator music featuring old chestnuts: “Roast them,” I say, “on an open fire.”

Stores opening on Thanksgiving Day: “Gluttony,” I cry, “make way for greed!” Black Friday: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

But . . . but Scrooge would lack coins to count, retirement funds to track, if all people followed his tightfisted example.

“Because of the odd / Breeding-habits of money,” even non-spenders benefit from holiday-season spenders, whose credit card swiping keeps Wall Street smiling. Only those who have nothing to save and little to spend are left in the lurch. For all the cant of the trickle-down camp, money continues to slither up.

Although R. S. Thomas lived far from shopping malls, and I’m all but positive that he never shopped online, he recognized that . . . .

Christianity has tended to be transformed or adapted in every country into which it has made its way. Perhaps the saddest transformation here has been its increasing commercialization: the rush, the false gaiety, the perfunctory exchange of cards and presents; the colossal expenditure of energy and cash on the wrong things.

Thomas understood, of course, the rippling economic benefits of spending. It was “the colossal expenditure of . . . cash on the wrong things” that Scrooged his Christmas.

Indeed, he probably thought that $50,000 given to help the poor would have a wider economic impact than $50,000 spent on a diamond pendant.

But . . . .

But Thomas recognized that we must not allow our Scroogery to blur our vision. The Christ Child is too big for even the biggest economy to suppress:

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.

Prose and poems quoted in this blog:

“Because of the odd / Breeding-habits of money” – “Not in Baedeker,” W. H. Auden, Nones, 47.

“Christianity has tended to be transformed” – “The Qualities of Christmas,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose (third edition), 44.

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

A Labyrinth on the Beach at R.S. Thomas’ Last Church

Sue of Aberdaron has been mentioned in several of my posts. Now I’m delighted to introduce her as Sue Fogarty, the writer of the following:

Labyrinth: Honoring the Prayers

Throughout the year, winter through to spring, summer and autumn, people come to St Hywyn’s church at the end of the Llŷn Peninsula . . . . where “the tide laps / at the bible,” “the breakers return / reaching a little further” along the wall below the church.

the_heart_of_prayerPeople come with their prayers, their requests for intercession, their hope for another state of being for themselves or others they love. Their prayers are crystalized in a name, some words, written on a pebble from that shore.

They walk and scan that shore for the ‘right’ pebble, the shape and color discerned amongst a myriad of others. Chosen, honored, placed with reverence on the cairn within the sacred walls, one on the other. A cairn of prayers, a collective mound of grief and pain and hope. A cairn, a way-marker on the path, to affirm to fellow travelers The Way, the shared route, ‘I have gone before you, follow me, as I follow the One who went before me.’

they_show_the_wayAnd now with reverence, we hold some of those stones in Communion with the Saints during the first Mass of November. We carry them out to the shore from whence they came, laying them within a Labyrinth marked out in the sand. Laid alongside each other, strangers, brought together in the serendipity of the love of others. They now create a new form. Now explicitly showing the path to the center of the Labyrinth, the axis, the focus, the locus of our prayers.

I bring myself and more prayer stones into the Labyrinth, mystified that I am at one moment following someone ahead of me, and the next moment at a turn in the path, we pass in opposite directions. Seemingly close to the Sacred centre, then drawn away, just as “the waves  run up the shore / and fall back,” so “I run up the approaches of God / and fall back.” As the path turns again, silent_prayer_on_the_shoreI arrive suddenly at the center, facing the sea, an expanse of stone strewn beach between the Labyrinth and the receding tide. In my return, back along the same path, walking “my ebb tide” which is not “despair,” my “prayer has its springs .… brimming.”

We leave the Labyrinth, a silent prayer on the shore. The day fades, darkness falls, the tide returns and in the quiet of the night, the stones are lifted by the sea’s enfolding embrace, restored to their own fathoms.

laying_the_stonesAs autumn’s glow recedes to winter’s stark beauty, so others will come to this shore on cold clear windswept days to lift a pebble from the sand, and lay the foundation stones of a new cairn of prayer in the church, honoring those they love, honoring the prayers, honoring those, unknown, who have yet to join them through the coming year, sharing in the fellowship of love and trust in God, perhaps with one prayer on their lips, “Lead me to still waters”.

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

“the tide laps / at the Bible” – “The Moon in Llŷn,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 30.

All other quotes from “Tidal,” Mass for Hard Times, 43.

Doubt, Not Belief, Elicited by Bible and Church | Poems of R.S. Thomas

RSThomasSepia.jpgR. S. Thomas stands at belief’s leper window, “neither inside not outside,” in his words, “but on the border between the two.”

Thomas pointed out the leper window I’m seeing as we walked around the medieval Church of Saint Michael. Nearby, in the hills surrounding the village of Llanfihangel-y-pennant, there was a leper colony in the Middle Ages, and, according to tradition, the window allowed lepers to view services without actually entering the church.

I imagine Thomas standing at today’s equivalent of that window – a poet-priest who is not fully inside the sanctuary of belief, a poet-priest who is not fully outside in the world of doubt.

With this image in mind, it’s natural to assume that Thomas-the-priest is the believer, that Thomas-the-poet is the doubter.

As a priest, Thomas had been trained to uphold in his century the centuries-old tradition of Christian belief. As a poet, he responded to the nudges of the Muse, and the Muse is nothing if not up to date. And the world of Thomas’s Muse, the world of the second two-thirds of the twentieth century, was a world infected with doubt.

So we’d expect, wouldn’t we, that Thomas’s belief would be sustained by looking into the church through the leper window, while his belief would be sapped by standing outside. And to a certain extent that is true.

But more true, I think, is the way Thomas experienced God in the world of nature and experienced doubt in the realm of the church.

Looking into the Bible through the leper window, Thomas was appalled by the bloodthirsty God depicted in some of the Black Book’s passages, the God who orders genocide, who countenances slavery.

Some of Thomas’s poems read like modern Bible stories, even beginning with “And God said”:

And God said, I will build a church here
And cause this people to worship me,
And afflict them with poverty and sickness
In return for centuries of hard work
And patience. . . .
. . . All this I will do,
Said God, and watch the bitterness in their eyes
Grow, and their lips suppurate with
Their prayers. . . .

“That’s not my God!” you say.

It is, however, one of the ways that God is depicted in the Bible. All Thomas has done is write a parody-poem.

I think that Thomas wrote Bible parodies to help believers understand why many people experience doubt, not belief, when they look into the church and the Bible.

Nevertheless, as he said repeatedly, Thomas himself always believed in God – even though his belief was often deadened by the Bible’s stories and the rigid, often lifeless structures of the church.

What kept Thomas’s faith green was nature and the openness of the natural world to experiences of transcendence. He prayed:

Deliver me from the long drought
of the mind. Let leaves
from the deciduous Cross
fall on us, washing
us clean, turning our autumn
to gold by the affluence of their fountain.

Thomas found God in the daily things of the world outside the church:

. . . as form in sculpture is the prisoner
of the hard rock, so in everyday life
it is the plain facts and natural happenings
that conceal God and reveal him to us
little by little under the mind’s tooling.

But it was only when his mind ceded its insistent right to rule, that Thomas experienced God’s presence in the natural world.

A moor was, for him, like a church:

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.

For R. S. Thomas, the life of the spirit was a matter of standing at the leper window and speaking the name “God,” and then

              . . .waiting,
somewhere between faith and doubt,
for the echoes of its arrival.

Quotes used in this blog:

“neither inside nor outside” – “No-One,” Autobiographies, 78.

“And God said, I will build a church here” – “The Island,” H’m, 20.

“Deliver me from the long drought” – “The Prayer,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 10.

“as form in sculpture is the prisoner” – “Emerging,” Frequencies, 41.

“I entered it on soft foot” – “The Moor,” Pietà, 24.

“waiting, / somewhere between faith and doubt” – “Waiting,” Frequencies, 32.

The Star Beyond the Farthest Star | Poems of R.S. Thomas

“I have a terrible need,” Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother, “of – shall I say the word – religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.”

Van Gogh’s “stars” pictures – “Starry Night over the Rhône” (1888) in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and “Starry Night” (1889) in the Museum of Modern Art in New York – are profoundly spiritual paintings, even though their subject matter is not religious. The closest thing to a traditional symbol is the church in “Starry Night.”

Yet both paintings give visual form to Robert Frost’s call to worship: “Take something like a star / To stay our minds on and be staid.”

One reason, perhaps, that we moderns have such un-staid minds is that we have lost sight of the stars.

Persse McGarrigle, in David Lodge’s novel Small World, finds himself in a big city in the Midlands of England attending a literary conference. He feels un-staid because a “yellowish glow from a million streetlamps lit up the sky and dimmed the light of the stars.”

Later, back home in Ireland, hitchhiking because his wallet is empty, then walking because it’s too late for cars to be on the road, Persse decides to sleep in a haystack. “He throws down his grip, kicks off his shoes and stretches out in the fragrant hay, staring up at the immense sky arching above his head, studded with a million stars. They pulse with a brilliance that city-dwellers could never imagine.”

Fascination with the stars seems to have been a human trait since the days before men and women began to use certain sounds to signify “days.”

Because we are composed of stardust?

Because we are characterized by always-more? More money, sex, power, success, knowledge . . . . always something more to try to get a grip on.

But what if there is something beyond everything we can get a grip on?

What if there is a star beyond the farthest star?

If there is, the star is God.

For R. S. Thomas, God is the star beyond the farthest star – the star that Thomas staid his mind on and was staid.

It was a November-dark night, when my wife and I drove to the cottage where R.S. and Betty lived at Llanfairynghornwy. We saw someone on the left side of the road beckoning with a flashlight – R.S. directing us up a driveway and into a parking spot. Then, shining his light on the stepping stones, he guided us to the door.

Like Persse McGarrigle, Thomas abhorred the “yellowish glow from a million streetlamps [that] lit up the sky and dimmed the light of the stars.” Like Vincent Van Gogh and Robert Frost, Thomas needed to live where he could see the stars, to be reminded to take something like a star to stay his mind on and be staid.

God.

One of my favorite Thomas poems is “The Other,” which was, I think, first collected in Destinations, one of the most beautifully printed, illustrated, and bound of Thomas’s books.

Thomas, sleepless in the middle of the night, hears . . .

. . . the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village, that is without light
and companionless. And the thought comes
of that other being who is awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.

Beyond the stars that can be seen because the village is without light, is The Other Star – the One who keeps Israel, who neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:4).

References for the quotes in this blog:

Edward Connery Lathem, editor, The Poetry of Robert Frost, “Take Something Like a Star,” 403.

David Lodge, The Campus Trilogy, Book One, Small World, 268 and 349.

R. S. Thomas, Destinations, 15.

Waiting, Somewhere Between Faith and Doubt, for God |Poems of R. S. Thomas

rs thomas with birdwatching glasses croppedImre Kertész, the Hungarian writer who received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature, was asked why he had a minister officiate at his second marriage. His answer was that “one doesn’t have to be a believer to be receptive to the wonders of life.”

R. S. Thomas was receptive to the wonders of life – a believer, too, but always hyphenating his belief with his doubt.

Thomas never closed his eyes to life as it is, often a trudge through pain. Never closed his mind to history, with its tales of sword-wielding believers. Never closed his ears to Bible stories that tell about God’s dastardly doings.

Some of Thomas’s poems paint the delightful landscape of nature:

                   . . . there is movement,
Change, as slowly the cloud bruises
Are healed by sunlight, or snow caps
A black mood; but gold at evening
To cheer the heart. . . .

Other poems by Thomas paint the deformed landscape of nature:

Catrin lives in a nice place
Of bracken, a looking-glass
For the sea that not far off
Glitters. ‘You live in a nice place,
Catrin’. The eyes regard me
Unmoved; the wind fidgets
With her hair. Her tongue is a wren
Fluttering in the mouth’s cage.

Here is one whom life made,
Omitting an ingredient, . . .

In some people, life’s chef has omitted an ingredient. In others, ingredients have been added that are ticking time-bombs. So Thomas concludes his poem about Catrin by telling us what he sees:

             . . . the golden landscape
Of nature, with the twisted creatures
Crossing it, each with his load.

But . . .

But what Thomas sees does not cause him to give up his belief in God.

He sees believers bearing responsibility for some of history’s most blood-thirsty atrocities; in particular, some of the believing “people of the book” – Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

The gunmen who recently rampaged through a shopping mall in Nairobi took time out from killing for praying.

Thomas sees scientists at blackboards chalking out long equations that explain the world without recourse to a God as a working hypothesis.

Yet Thomas continues to be receptive to the wonders of life. He goes on believing in God. And he hyphenates life’s heavenly and hellish landscapes, the paintings of Monet and those of Bosch.

Thomas writes:

There’s no getting round it,
It’s a hell of a thing, he said, and looked grave
To prove it. What he said was
The truth. I would make different
Provision; for such flesh arrange
Exits down less fiery paths. But the God
We worship fashions the world
From such torment, and every creature
Decorates it with its tribute of blood
.

Side by side with that poem in Pietà, which was published in 1966, is “In Church,” where, Thomas tells us:

        . . . 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.

Thomas looked up in wonder and believed in God. Looked around in anguish and was assailed by doubt. What to do?

Link doubt and belief. Tie them together. Hyphenate them.

And ride that hyphen through life, but always edging . . . slightly . . . towards belief.

Thomas believed . . .

                                   . . . looking up
into invisible eyes shielded against love’s
glare, in the ubiquity of a vast concern.

Thomas continued to believe that at the heart of the universe there is a vast concern that we call Love, that we name God.

Here is the concluding stanza of “Waiting,” which was published in Thomas’s 1978 collection titled Frequencies, a slim volume that can be read as a handbook of doubting-belief – Thomas is addressing God:

           Young
I pronounced you. Older
I still do, but seldomer
now, leaning far out
over an immense depth, letting
your name go and waiting,
somewhere between faith and doubt,
for the echoes of its arrival.

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

“there is movement” – “The View from the Window,” Poetry for Supper, 27.

“Catrin lives in a nice place” – “The Observer,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 11.

“There’s no getting round it” – “Ah!” Pietà, 45.

“There is no other sound” – “In Church,” Pietà, 44.

“looking up” – “Perhaps,” Frequencies, 39.

“Young” – “Waiting,” Frequencies, 32.

An Awkward Sod for God | An Assessment of R.S. Thomas on the 13th Anniversary of His Death

Poet R.S. Thomas 1994

R.S. Thomas in 1994

Today, the thirteenth anniversary of R. S. Thomas’s death, is a good time for reflecting on his legacy.

After my last visit with Thomas, in November of 1994, I drove on to his theological college, where I talked with the college’s head, John Rowlands, about how Thomas was viewed in Wales at large and in the Church in Wales, of which Thomas was a priest.

Rowlands said the general Welsh attitude was “Who will rid us of this turbulent priest?” While among his fellow churchmen, Thomas was often dismissed as eccentric and pessimistic, as a doom and gloom poet.

Speaking for himself, Rowlands compared Thomas to John the Baptist, saying that both men were voices crying out in the wilderness (Mark 1:3) of cultures that were under the heel of invading powers. In the case of John’s country, Palestine, the invader was Rome, whose officials worshiped the emperor as a god.

In the case of Thomas’s Wales, the invader was England, but England understood as a symbol for a culture dominated by technology, consumerism, and the worship of greed as a god.

Rowlands then said that Thomas was a prophet who was not without honor except in his own country (Mark 6:4).

Recently, during an interview on BBC’s HARDtalk, Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, said that prophets are “awkward sods.”

For me, R. S. Thomas is an awkward sod for God – the preeminent religious poet of the twentieth and, I predict, the twenty-first centuries.

He speaks as a poet-prophet between two groups eager to be rid of him as a turbulent poet-priest. On the one side are unbelievers who refuse to hear him because he believes in God; on the other are believers who refuse to hear him because he often expresses doubts about God.

The first group, people more likely to read serious poetry, look for poets who do not bother them with God-talk.

This past Sunday, strolling along Nassau Street in Princeton, a magnet drew me into Labyrinth Books, where I stood delighted in front of the largest poetry selection I’ve seen for years. But not one book by R. S. Thomas.

I’m certain that if I were to stop in at one of the “Christian” bookstores in my area, I’d not find one book by R. S. Thomas.

Yet John Rowlands predicted, in 1994, that Thomas would be read for years to come. And I still agree.

I think there are soft edges of the two groups described above – edges that are breaking away and becoming spiritual pilgrims once more.

Thomas’s last parish, Saint Hywyn’s in Aberdaron, was an age-old pilgrimage destination – a tiny port where pilgrims boarded boats to carry them across a treacherous sound to the island of Bardsey, where, according to legend, the dust of twenty thousand saints is mingled with the soil.

Thomas refers to Bardsey in these lines:

There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, . . .

Thomas made that treacherous boat trip many times while he lived in Aberdaron, but he questioned whether Bardsey would ever again attract pilgrims. In fact, however, the island and Saint Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron are now doing just that, largely because of Thomas and his poetry.

But in one of his poems written while he lived in Aberdaron, Thomas places pilgrimage in a larger context:

  . . . In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
[Aberdaron]
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. . . .

A growing number of people are, I think, becoming readers of Thomas’s poems, because a growing number of people are becoming unsatisfied with the thoughts of thinkers with final thoughts on both sides of the God-question.

These people of the middle way between doubt and belief are seekers at ease with endless seeking, for they know that not reaching a goal keeps them open to life’s suddenly moments – times when an unexpected revelation becomes, in Robert Frost’s words, “a momentary stay against confusion.”

For many persons in his day, Thomas may have been a prophet without honor in his own country, simply an awkward sod who sounded as if everything machine-like gave him heartburn; who gave atheists fits because he believed in God, and who gave theists fits because he often stormed at God “with the eloquence / of the abused heart.”

But for an increasing number of people, Thomas is an awkward sod for God, a poet-pilgrim leading other pilgrims who know . . .

It is too late to start
For destinations not of the heart.

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

“There is an island there is no going” – “Pilgrimages,” Frequencies, 51.

“In cities that” – “The Moon in Lleyn,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 30-31.

“with the eloquence” – “At It,” Frequencies, 15.

“It is too late to start” – “Here,” Tares, 43.