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.
Dating right back to 1946 there are a number of R.S.Thomas’ poems which are set in country churches. In Church is in a collection of poems, The Bread of Truth, which came out in 1963 when R..S was at Eglwys Fach. Escaping alone to the countryside in the afternoon became a way to ‘forget about the small troubles of the parish.’ (Autobiographies 67) But as he found preoccupations of parish concerns accompanying him on his trips into the country, so too the sense of solitariness never left him when he was involved in parish life. Here it’s not the solitary resonances of silence unfolding into prayer searched for in the darkness of night as in The Other which preoccupy him, but the emptiness of the church after a small congregation has left.
The poem has an intimate private feel, made room for already by the recent departure of a handful of parishioners; ‘the few people have gone.’ The poet is listening. The air is recomposing itself; the air is waiting. The air, the space in which the silence hangs, has become its own thing. We’re told that the church was built to hold it in. The air is its own presence and has been since the first ‘stones grouped itself around it.’ This is a time of ‘vigil.’ Vigil is a period of keeping watch or guard. It’s a time to keep awake with some purpose. So, what is the vigil or keeping watch for? The church is described as having the ‘hard ribs’ of a body. We are familiar with looking up at the ceiling in churches to see the wooden beams like an upended boat. In church we are pilgrims in God. There is also play here on church and body. The beams are the ribs of a body. Body in this context reminds us of Christ: being part of the body or community of Christ. The poet's shift from singular first person to plural: ‘our’ connects him back into a representative of his community. The stones of the church, the ribs of its beams, the body of Christ and the poet’s pilgrimage in God all here have ‘failed’ to animate or breathe life. However, the poem moves on with this uneasy sense that for a time before something was animated: the pews now creaking back into their emptiness testify to this. So do the withdrawn bats which now resume their business from before the entrance of parishioners. But more dominant now are the shadows which take possession of the light. There’s an eerie half-light at play here. And this is the place in church where the poet sits. In the last five lines of the poem R.S.Thomas uses that trick again of shifting from first person to third: no longer ‘I’ but ‘man.’ And that trick too of paradox: the silence is animated with the inward sound of breathing. The final three lines form the crux and we realise this is where the poet has been intending to lead us all along:
testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross. R.S.Thomas is right: the less said the better about the meaning of his poems. But these last few lines beg some investigation. If the meaning of this poem rests on one man in relationship with a hide-and-seek God, pitting his questions upon ‘an untenanted cross’ - then what is the nature of this cross? And what sort of a relationship is this? There must be a series of questions for them to be nailed one by one, uncomfortably echoing a little like Luther’s 95 articles being nailed to the door of Wittenburg Castle Church. It is easy to think that these questions might pivot around where is God in his searching; the paradox of God’s presence in absence. There is also, however, something so strong here in the sense of God’s absence that it can only mean a knowledge of what presence means - even if only glimpsed in the places ‘light held in possession for an hour.’ Like Luther’s articles, the questions ultimately may move more poignantly around the nature of salvation. The final two words: ‘untenanted cross’ seem to nail down the whole poem. Is the cross untenanted because Christ has deserted his final post? Or because Christ has risen? This paradox, this ambiguity is the place we must begin from if we choose to sit in church and take our seat in a now empty pew. When we analyse and begin to understand the quality of its silence, before, during, or after any congregation has been there - start from, whatever they may be, the questions each of us has to be nailed on this ‘untenanted cross.’
Barry Morgan & Rowan Williams. Laboratories of the Spirit : R.S. Thomas’ religious poetry. Public conversation conducted by the Learned Society of Wales Cymdeithas Ddysgedig Cymru. On Youtube here:
Mark Oakley. R.S. Thomas and the Hiddenness of God. University of Gloucestershire, Park Campus, 2017
R. S. Thomas. Autobiographies. Phoenix Giants, 1998
R. S. Thomas. Collected poems 1945-1990. Phoenix Giants, 1993