R. S. Thomas graduated with high honors in silence.
Not just, however, the silence that permits someone to go on speaking – the silence kept by law clerks working for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Because the justice pauses, often at some length, between sentences, her clerks say “Mississippi” twice before responding to what she’s been saying.
For Thomas, silence means more than that, more than saying “Llanfairynghornwy” twice before speaking.
We draw closer to his understanding of silence when we hear him saying that his first wife, Elsi, was . . .
Content to live with silence as a cloak
About her every thought, . . .
But even cloaking our thoughts in silence is not quite the absence of sound that played an essential role in Thomas’s spiritual life.
The person preparing to hear God must be silent, totally silent, and the place must be silent, too.
This silence is hard to come by in our culture that turns everything into noise – a culture for which Thomas has written an epitaph: “because silence was golden / I broke it.”
Even in church, golden silence is broken, often by word and song being ratcheted up to the decibel level of some bars.
R.S. preferred empty churches, silent churches: “I have stopped to listen,” he tells us,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. . . .
Thomas waited for church buildings to become silent, then he went down on his knees, and maintained silence as a way of preparing to hear the voice of God.
But a silent church and a silent Thomas did not guarantee a speaking God.
Sometimes Thomas fretted: Is this silence “where God hides / From my searching?”
God did not hide in silence from Jesus at the time of his baptism: “. . . a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:11).
Nor did God hide in silence from Jesus at his transfiguration: “. . . from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!’” (Mark 9:7).
But when nails pinned Jesus to the cross, the only voice was that of Jesus, who “cried out with a loud voice, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:33-34).
During the hours when Jesus most needed to hear God’s sustaining voice, God was silent.
Yet Jesus must have heard in that silence the voice of God, for his dying was such that a centurion who was watching him said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39)
Sometimes – perhaps often? – when God speaks, our eardrums do not vibrate.
A comment on my April 14th blog, “The Muse Will Not Be Forced,” called attention to “a sound of sheer silence” that the Hebrew prophet Elijah heard at a time when he was running for his life (1 Kings 19:12).
What Elijah heard was a silent presence, after which God spoke to him, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (19:13)
For Thomas, the silent presence was sufficient; no need for follow-up words.
Here is how he describes mealtime with Elsi:
Seated at table –
no need for the fracture
of the room’s silence: noiselessly
they conversed. Thoughts mingling
were lit up, gold
particles in the mind’s stream.
Thomas preferred to converse noiselessly, his thoughts mingling with “the serene presence” in silent churches.
In his poem titled “Llananno,” he tells us that often he declared his “independence of the speeding / traffic [he was] part of,” and turned down a “narrow path to the river,” and entered Saint Anno’s Church. “I keep my eyes,” he tells us,
open and am not dazzled,
so delicately does the light enter
my soul from the serene presence . . . .
When I visited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the painting placed at the focal point of the Impressionist gallery was Van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers, about which Thomas writes:
So large a church
for so small
a village, yet still
not big enough
for the stupendous presence.
A quiet church building, or a moor that was “like a church to [Thomas],” filled with a stupendous and serene presence, followed by waiting . . .
… till the silence
turn golden and love is
a moment eternally overflowing.
Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:
“Content to live with silence as a cloak” – “I Never Thought in This Poor World to Find,” R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi, 17.
“because silence was golden” – “Pluperfect,” Between Here and Now, p.89.
“I have stopped to listen” – “In Church,” Pietà, 44.
“where God hides” – “In Church,” Pietà, 44.
“Seated at table” – “He and She,” R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi, 36.
“independence of the speeding” – “Llananno,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 62.
“So large a church” – “Van Gogh: The Church at Auvers,” Between Here and Now, 65.
“like a church to me” – “The Moor,” Pietà, 24.
“till the silence” – “Evening,” R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi, 57.