'And to one God says....': a reading and reflection on the poem 'Mediations' by R.S.Thomas
Mediations by R.S.Thomas
And to one God says: Come
to me by numbers and
figures : see my beauty
in the angles between
stars, in the equations
of my kingdom. Bring
your lenses to the worship
of my dimensions : far
out and far in, there
is always more of me
in proportion. And to another :
I am the bush burning
at the centre of
your existence : you must put
your knowledge off and come
to me with your mind
bare. And to this one
he says : Because of
your high stomach, the bleakness
of your emotions, I
will come to you in the simplest
things, in the body
of a man hung on a tall
tree you have converted to
timber and you shall not know me.
from: Collected Poems 1945-1990 A Phoenix Giant, 1993
Mediations came out in R.S. Thomas 1975 collection Laboratories of the Spirit. It resonates with several of his later poems. In The Tree, which was written in 1983, he writes: ‘Nightly / we explore the universe / on our wave-lengths….’ (p417). And in his final 1995 collection R.S.Thomas opens his poem, Raptor, with these words:
You have made God small
setting him astride
a pipette or a retort
studying the bubbles
absorbed in an experiment
that will come to nothing.
In the last 25 years of his life, R.S. Thomas was preoccupied with understanding by what means, mediations, God chooses to speak to humankind. As in our capacity to tune into sound waves on an am/fm radio what are the best frequencies for human beings to hear God? Alongside this, is the recognition of the sheer variety of wave bands God chooses to reveal God-self in our world. We can put God under the microscope in a laboratory but the warning is, don’t make God small. And also, never think yourself so unworthy as to be outside redemptive love of God.
In all of his poetry, although he wrestles with the paradox of God’s absence and presence, struggles to find a language with which to communicate his naturally contemplative yet also often fraught relationship with the Divine, R.S.Thomas never lets go of his need for this very relationship. He scrutinises himself and the world with his priestly poetic eye as truthfully as he can. He finds both badly wanting, yet more than this, he uncovers again and again, the unutterable compassion of God’s love. God is always reaching out for us, long before we stretch out our arms.
Mediations was written during his last incumbency in Aberdaron; a town set on a coastline in the furthest western most tip of Wales. R.S.Thomas described that time as the end of his personal pilgrimage. He was now able to focus on what really mattered to him: ‘matters of God and universe.’
Mediations is set as a one solid block of 25 lines on the page. It explores 3 general ways God can choose to speak to a person. For one, it’s via the means of science and mathematics: ‘by numbers and/ figures’, the ‘angles between / stars’ or mathematical equations. Here is the beauty of ongoing proportion and measurement. For another it’s the flash of vision; the laying aside our intellect and entering the mystery and seering realm of prophecy. So we have the intellect alongside the deeply intuitive inner apprehension. The perfection of equations and science, and the inner experience of awe and wonder.
But there is a third way. And this most powerful of all mediations is perhaps all the more startling because it’s the means by which God chooses to speak to ‘the one’ who can feel the least worthy. To that one with an ‘high stomach’ and ‘bleak emotions,’ God gives Christ.
The reference in the last 6 lines of the poem is the choice that God has made to reveal divine presence via the crucifixion of Jesus. There are many twists and turns of thought in these last lines. These ‘simplest things’ for Christians are the most profound. The ‘tall tree’ that has been ‘converted to timber’ perhaps refers to the devices of our hands to cause immense suffering. It was humankind, after all, who took a tree, made it into a cross and chose to crucify Jesus upon it. God gave us Christ as the great mediator, but we did not know God in him.
And yet still, there is a double meaning in the last line, ‘and you shall not know me.’ God was not recognised when Christ came amongst us, and was crucified. But God was still there in Christ, in that act then and in redemption now. By means of Christ’s death God comes to one, to us, in our suffering and pain. We may convert the tree to timber, but God converts the crucifixion to a further sign of God’s love for humanity.
In Mediations R.S.Thomas is tuning his own ear into the awesome nature of God’s voice in the world. God may be discovered in the most exquisite mathematical formula or brightest vision. But the voice can be heard too in an even stranger frequencies. Those being our own human inadequacies and failings. However God chooses to mediate divine presence in the world, we are always left with the fact that we can’t control God. Only attune our own ears to listen out.
The question we are left with at the end of the poem, and R.S.Thomas spent the rest of life exploring, is: who on earth is this God?