In Church by R.S.Thomas
On Wednesday the 16th of June, Carol O’Connor led a Spiritual Reading Group session via Zoom on the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas. Four poems were discussed, the second poem being ‘In Church’.
Artwork: Portion of Iso-Mandala 113 by Philip Harvey
Often I try To analyse the quality Of its silences. Is this where God hides From my searching? I have stopped to listen, After the few people have gone, To the air recomposing itself For vigil. It has waited like this Since the stones grouped themselves about it. These are the hard ribs Of a body that our prayers have failed To animate. Shadows advance From their corners to take possession Of places the light held For an hour. The bats resume Their business. The uneasiness of the pews Ceases. 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.
R.S. Thomas’ literary executor recalls a conversation with him: ‘the question for me is not whether God exists but what kind of God.’ Appreciators of his poetry have mused: he wouldn’t have written a thing if he had been an atheist. His poetry is full of faith and his struggle with it. (see Barry Morgan, in his ‘Laboratories of the Spirit’). In Church is a poem premised on listening and allowing the questions of faith to break into that space of silence. Although there is only one actual question which is spelt out: in the third and fourth line ‘Is this where God hides / from my searching?’ one senses from the last two lines that there are a whole host of questions. But, that one stated question, “Is this where God hides from my searching?”, implies paradoxically that God is here. Is this a relationship with God one about playing a game of hide and seek? The questions being nailed ‘to an untenanted cross’ have much to do with the nature of this God.
English priest, lover and teacher of poetry, Mark Oakley writes: ‘For Thomas shadows point the way. He tries to articulate God only to discover God’s elusiveness, his receding before the poet….it is the eel-like God who slips out of your hand into the dark depths that Thomas attempts to express.’ (Oakley 7) Mark Oakley furthers his thinking: ‘Thomas develops poetry, often around the image of Christ, in which effort gives way to grace, a perception of receiving.’ (Oakley 9) R.S.Thomas may never address Christ, but his thoughts are often never far from the need to understand his reality in God. And by extension, God’s presence or absence in his own life.