“A Bridge Too Far . . . . ” | R.S. Thomas and The Machine

two bridge photo Abardaron

Lorry accident, Aberdaron, Cymru

Blogger’s note: While I was recovering from successful cataract surgery on both eyes, Susan Fogarty suggested a post about an ‘accident’ on a bridge in Aberdaron, Wales, R. S. Thomas’s last parish. I asked her to write it, which, with poetic sensitivity, she has done.

The sleepy seaside village of Aberdaron made headlines on the Welsh TV news on 2nd February, as an articulated wagon (known as an eighteen-wheeler in the US) had become wedged, almost destroying the 200-year-old bridge that straddles the small river running through the centre of the village.

The GPS navigator was made a scapegoat. The driver, without a signal, was lost. His intelligence forsaken, for the sake of ‘ease’, in using a machine.

What were the driver’s thoughts at the moment he approached the narrow bridge? Did he stop to think that the small bridge, built for farmers like RS Thomas’s Prytherch, sufficient to give them access with their donkey carts to the flour mill on the other side of the river, would have sufficient space for him?

Without meeting him, we have No Answer. Perhaps in defense he would say,

But the chemicals in
My mind were not
Ready, so I let
Him go on, dissolving
The word on my
Tongue.

For the purpose of this post, ‘Him’ refers to the machine (not God) and the articulated vehicle that could not articulate, “Stop, this is a bridge too far”. No words from the driver could stop the machine urging him onward.

     . . . it takes time
To prepare a sacrifice
For the God.

How long did the driver maneuver backwards and forwards, smashing the parapets until the machine was trapped, pinned down, as a sacrifice on the altar of the bridge?

           . . . Give yourself
To science that reveals
All, asking no pay
For it

And now, there was a price to pay for a man giving himself over to science. The core belief of RS in his poems on the theme of the machine, is that our machine culture, our addiction to science and technology that many believe has the answers to life, comes at a cost to ourselves.

……. . . Knowledge is power;
The old oracle
Has not changed……

until it loses its satellite signal, its data, its knowledge and fails . . . .

Then we reach for the road atlas, the illustrated journal of truth to guide us to our destination.

Meanwhile . . .

………… . . . Over the creeds
And masterpieces our wheels go.

The machines trundle over the masterpiece of the bridge, with no regard for the human beings who constructed it. A bridge that has served well the needs of a small community for two centuries, a bridge over and a bridge to, people and time. A bridge,

whose stone is the language
of its builders. Here

by the sea they said little.
But their message to the future
was: Build well.

And they did build well, for it was only the parapets that were dislodged, which are now being restored to their rightful place. Another week from now, the traffic will again trundle over the small bridge, and few, except the local people, would guess at the story of the night when this was a bridge too far for a man lost in his machine.

 

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

All of the quotes, beginning with “But the chemicals in” and concluding with “Over the creeds,” are from “No Answer,” H’m (1972), 7.

“whose stone is the language” – “Sarn Rhiw,” Destinations (1985), 29.

 

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“Nature’s Truth Is Primary” – R.S. Thomas, the Green Man, and the Island of Bardsey

The Green ManWhen I received an unexpected retirement gift from parishioners – I had to decide what to buy with the money to remember the couple and their yappy Schnauzer.

I decided on a Green Man for the deck of my townhouse, a place from which I could see trees, birds, deer, even an occasional red fox.

The Green Man is an ancient symbol of the intermeshing of human beings and the natural world. Although my Green Man was molded of unpainted faux-stone, many “representations are of a leaf-mask – green and gold, signifying nature transformed, in harmony with heaven.”

One of the Green Man’s haunts is Bardsey, an island off the coast of the Llŷn peninsula in northwestern Wales. R. S. Thomas calls it “that green / island” with “anointed air,” where “there was a resurrection / of nature.”

Sue Fogarty, my Bardsey Island guide; me; Christine Evans, a poet living on Bardsey Island

Sue Fogarty, my Bardsey Island guide; me; Christine Evans, a poet living on Bardsey Island

The Welsh poet Christine Evans, who lives on “that green / island” half of the year, uses the word “Veriditas” to express the “resurrection / of nature” – the freshness and creativity of the natural world.

Veriditas is, in the words of Hildegarde of Bingen, “the power of springtime, a germinating force, a freshness that penetrates all creation.”

A theology of Veriditas is what R. S. Thomas, a priest of the Church in Wales, finds missing in many parish ministers. The Reverend Elias Morgan, in Thomas’s poem “The Minister,” self-cloisters himself from the natural world, the world of flowers and birds . . . and love:

A few flowers bloomed beneath the window,
Set there once by a kind hand
In the old days, a woman’s gesture
Of love against the childless years.
Morgan pulled them up; they were untidy.
He sprinkled cinders there instead.

In the pulpit, Morgan ranted and Bible-flapped and rained down cinders on . . .

   . . . sex, sex, sex and money, money,
God’s mistake and the devil’s creation.

In the end, Morgan’s spirit failed, then his body, for he had self-cloistered himself in the Black Book, and declined invitations to go walking with the Green Man:

Morgan . . .

. . . never listened to the hills’
Music calling to the hushed
Music within; . . .

Morgan never experienced what I did when I stepped clumsily off of the Bardsey boat and noticed

           . . . sudden, welling
quiet, and how here the breeze
lets smells of growing things
settle and grow warm, a host of presences
drowsing, their wings too fine to see.

Morgan never walked the gravel tracks of Bardsey as I did, guided by a woman who lives greenness, and realized that . . .

                 . . . nature’s truth
Is primary and her changing seasons
Correct out of a vaster reason
The vague errors of the flesh.

 

Quotes used in this post:

“representations are of a leaf-mask” – Burning the Candle by Christine Evans (2006), 88.

“that green / island” – “That Place,” Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), 8.

“the power of springtime” – Burning the Candle (2006), 90.

“A few flowers bloomed beneath the window” – “The Minister,” Song at the Year’s Turning (1955), 82-83.

“sex, sex, sex and money, money” – “The Minister,” 83.

“never listened to the hills’” – “The Minister,” 92.

“sudden welling / quiet” – “Enlli,” Selected Poems by Christine Evans (2003), 85.

“nature’s truth / Is primary” – “The Minister,” 93.

Nailing God-Questions to Crossed Pieces of Wood | Inspired by R.S. Thomas

bardsey island cross

Cross on Bardsey Island, Wales

Just two pieces of driftwood fastened together to form a cross, with a piece of cloth draped over it and a circlet of brambles crowning it. On the table at its base, a wooden mallet and some nails.

I used the mallet to nail something invisible to the cross.

There’s a backstory, of course. For many years, Bardsey, an island off of the tip of the Llŷn peninsula in Wales, had been a pilgrimage goal, probably unreachable for me.

The island may have had human inhabitants during the Bronze Age, but it enters history with persons seeking to live as Christians: Celtic solitaries, beginning in the sixth century; Augustinian monks, arriving in the 1100s; Calvinistic Methodists, sobering the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, the spirituality of Bardsey has a fresh, green Celtic feel.

Celtic believers experienced God’s presence, not only in buildings constructed with stones of the fields, but also in the fields where the stones were gathered.

So what I anticipated when I ventured out on my Bardsey Pilgrimage was an experience similar to the one R. S. Thomas describes. Writing about a moor, he says:

It was like a church to me.
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. . . .

With my pilgrim guide, I walked on soft foot uphill from the Bardsey boat landing. Within moments, I was in church (but not a church building), enveloped in quietness and peace. Where, in the words of Bardsey poet Christine Evans, you find “a host of presences / drowsing, their wings too fine to see.” Where past, present, and future are Now. As RS remarks, “tenses / were out of place on that green / island.”

We sauntered on uphill, and my guide led me into a stone-built oratory, and there on a table rested two pieces of driftwood fastened together to form a cross. A piece of cloth was draped over it and a circlet of brambles crowned it. A wooden mallet and some nails were at its base. And once again I thought of a poem by RS:

. . . 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.

bardsey island

The author on Bardsey Island

I used the mallet to nail my questions to the cross.

Then my guide read aloud RS’s poem “Pilgrimages,” which closes with these lines:

. . . Was the pilgrimage
I made to come to my own
self, to learn that in times
like these and for one like me
God will never be plain and
out there, but dark rather and
inexplicable, as though he were in here?

RS knows, Celtic spirituality knows, that God leaves unanswered our questions about why life is as life is. Those people who present themselves as having God-answers to all our questions, are, in fact, making up those answers.

So we nail our God-questions to the post-resurrection cross, the “untenanted cross,” and live and love our way through life in “the darkness” that “is the deepening shadow / of [God’s] presence.”

 

Poems quoted in this post:

“It was like a church to me” – “The Moor,” Pietà (1966), 24.

“a host of presences” – “Enlli” (Bardsey), Christine Evans, Selected Poems (2003), 85.

“tenses / were out of place” – “That Place,” Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), 8.

“There is no other sound” – “In Church,” Pietà (1966), 44.

“Was the pilgrimage” – “Pilgrimages,” Frequencies (1978), 52.

“The darkness / is the deepening shadow / of your presence” – “Alive,” Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), 51.

Packing A Welsh Poet In My Bag For My Upcoming Trip to Wales

RS Thomas on SexTwenty thousand saints are said to be buried on Bardsey Island, all 445 acres of it. So to take the bones of saints to Bardsey would be like rounding up more politicians and lobbyists for Washington.

Excessive, to say the least . . . certainly un-called-for . . . a fool’s errand.

No matter.

I’m packing a Welsh poet in my bag for my upcoming trip to Wales, which will include, if weather permits, a boat trip to Bardsey. The island lies off the coast of Aberdaron, R. S. Thomas’s last parish.

I’ll take Thomas out of my bag in Aberdaron on May 28th, but he’ll come out, first, the previous weekend at Gladstone’s Library at Hawarden, also in Wales.

The story is this: I may be the only American parish minister who developed a personal relationship with Thomas, visiting him in 1992, 1993, and 1994, and corresponding with him from 1991 until his death, in 2000. Indeed, I may be the only American, no matter of what vocation, who learned to know him – I welcome comments proving me wrong.

My book A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief: R. S. Thomas and His Poetry was published in 2013, during the celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth. That publication has led to my forthcoming speaking opportunities in Wales.

An American whose tongue does back flips when trying to pronounce simple Welsh words, carrying the preeminent poet of Welshness to Wales; the preeminent twentieth-century poet of God, too.

And that, if anything, justifies the packing of nine talks about Thomas and his poetry in my bag. Like RS, I’m an ordained minister; like him, I was a parish minister for forty years; like him, I’m a doubting-believer. Unlike him, I’m an American. Unlike him, I don’t write poetry. Well, an occasional limerick. So if there’s an acceptable reason for me to speak about RS and his poems, it lies in the way our similarities and dissimilarities afford me a distinctive perspective on his doubt and his belief.

These links will take you to what I’m doing at Gladstone’s Library and Aberdaron:

http://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/calendar/rsthomas-masterwork-doubting-belief.html

http://www.st-hywyn.org.uk/events.html

Who knows what’ll happen. Perhaps I’ll be pelted with leeks. Expect a report in June.

Why Is This a “No Post” Sunday?

The answer is: I forgot . . . until Friday evening during at jazz concert.

The reason for my memory lapse is: I’ve been concentrating full time on R. S. Thomas and his poetry.

But shouldn’t that, you ask, have produced a post?

Yes, if I’d been thinking about writing Thomas posts, but I was thinking about writing Thomas talks.

Ten of them.

To be given between May 1st and 28th. One here in Pennsylvania and nine in Wales.

So there should be a fresh supply of material for posts when I get back to Saint Corny by the Quarry at the end of May.

Perhaps there’ll be other new material as well. For I plan to spend five days in London and two in Cambridge before going on to Hawarden and Aberdaron in Wales.

In London, there’s a Matisse exhibit at the Tate Modern, and a friend has arranged for my son and me to see some of William Blake’s works at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Speaking of Matisse, didn’t Thomas write a poem about one of his paintings?

H’mmm . . . .

A Stormy Night at One of R.S. Thomas’s Churches

Once again, a post by Susan Fogarty.

Sue, in one of her many roles at Saint Hywyn’s Church, Aberdaron, has devised a poetry pilgrimage called “Stations,” which is informed by the “Stations of the Cross” undertaken at Easter in many churches. The congregation moves around the church, stopping to say prayers at each of the fourteen sculpted or painted images – images that tell the story of the last hours of Christ before his crucifixion.

In Saint Hywyn’s Church, as pilgrims move around, they stop at significant places (stations) to hear one of Thomas’s poems being read aloud. Each station and poem have a connection, within the words of the poem. After the reading there is a short silent meditation, before moving on to the next station.

The slight changes made in the quotations from Thomas’s poems are not identified, thereby making it possible to read Sue’s writing without interruption.

Sue’s post:

 “Here Was the Marriage of Land and Sea, from Whose Bickering the Spray Rises”

From the churchyard of St Hywyns at Aberdaron

“View on the morning of January 3rd from the churchyard at Aberdaron, North Wales. Just after sunrise, just before high tide and in high winds.” Photograph: downes24/GuardianWitness

There was certainly a great deal more than “bickering” between land and sea on the night of January 2nd of this year, around the shores of the Llŷn Peninsula.

However, within the protection of the centuries old walls of Saint Hywyn’s, there was something very different. For “Here on our knees in this stone church, that was full only of the silent congregation of shadows and the sea’s sound, it was easy to believe Thomas was right.”

On our “Stations” poetry pilgrimage, seven women, who had come from the “cities that have outgrown their promise, they were becoming pilgrims again, not only to this place, but also to the recreation of it in their own spirits”

RS Thomas St Hywyns Church interior

R.S. Thomas’ iron corona in St. Hywyn’s Church, Aberdaron, Wales

Beneath the great iron corona gifted by RS, that hangs by a long chain from the high beams, with its eight tall candles, holding the shadows to the walls, we listened to “The Empty Church.” Had “They laid this stone trap for him, enticing him with candles, as though he would come like some huge moth out of the darkness to beat there”?

And I question for myself now, am I drawn as if in an entomological trance to the candles? Will I burn myself “in the human flame, leaving my reasons torn”?

I answer this with my intuition not my intellect. Reading Thomas’s poems in ‘his’ church is not an intellectual exercise, it is a visceral experience. “This is the deep calling to deep”, when we give time and space for the silence in the mind, when we draw a little nearer to “the silence we call God.”

It dawned upon me now that this silence within, no matter what is raging outside, “has waited like this  since the stones grouped themselves about it.” It is there for us all. All that we have to do is open the door and step into it.

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

“Here was the marriage” – “Pen Llŷn,” Mass for Hard Times, 72.

“Here on my knees” – “The Moon in Llŷn,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 30.

“cities that have outgrown their promise” – “The Moon in Llŷn,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 30-31.

“They laid this stone trap” and “in the human flame” – “The Empty Church,” Frequencies, 35.

“This is the deep” – “But the silence in the mind,” Counterpoint, 50.

“has waited like this” – “In Church,” Pietà, 44.

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.