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  • '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 p275 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? Carol O’Connor

  • 'A single dead prawn': A reading and reflection on the poem 'At the End' by R.S.Thomas

    At the End by R.S.Thomas Few possessions: a chair, a table, a bed to say my prayers by, and, gathered from the shore, the bone-like, crossed sticks proving that nature acknowledges the Crucifixion. All night I am at a window not too small to be frame to the stars that are no further off than the city lights I have rejected. By day the passers-by, who are not pilgrims, stare through the rain’s bars, seeing me as prisoner of the one view, I who have been made free by the tide’s pendulum truth that the heart that is low now will be at the full tomorrow. from: No Truce with the Furies Bloodaxe Books, 1995 In his biography, The Man Who Went Into the West: The Life of R.S.Thomas, Byron Rogers describes how he chivvied Gwydion, R.S.Thomas’ son, for his father’s ‘papers.’ Apparently R.S.Thomas wrote with a waste paper basket beside him and the survival of some poems has been due to Gwydion’s mother who ‘retrieved and ironed them.’ Apart from his puzzling autobiographical work, Neb or No-one, R.S.Thomas left no diary nor private journal. But one day Byron Rogers came to be entrusted with four ‘bulging supermarket bags’ of his possessions. Perhaps he had hoped for new bardic words from the poet but instead, as he lists in a rather lengthy paragraph, the bags contained such items as: the skull of a hare, a cheese box containing a puffin’s beak, advice on the control of moth damage… a list of mills in Merionethshire…..Rogers concludes the inventory with: ‘Envelope containing a single dead prawn.’ At the End appears in R.S.Thomas’ last collection in 1995, No Truce with the Furies. There is here, a paring back to the essentials and recognition that the things we need matter less than how we construct them to frame our vision of the world. The poem centres upon a person’s aloneness; their ‘one view’ is formulated by the Crucifixion, a small window to the stars, a ‘pendulum truth.’ Passers-by see but do not see, for their lives are constructed differently. With its reversals of logic and adept laneways of discursive waywardness, the poem is best apprehended intuitively. Although it’s written as one single 21 line verse, At the End is divided into three distinct parts; each one sentence long. The first lists the few possessions of the poet, including a bed that seems to mean more to pray by than sleep in, and some crossed sticks, offered from the ocean as nature’s acknowledgement of the Crucifixion. The second sentence describes the poet in vigil at night, much like the cross sticks now is his small framed view of the stars which are as close to him as the city lights which he has turned his back on. And the third, set during the daytime: the poet positioned apart from others, seeing life very differently. Passersby view him as a person in prison, but are blind to ‘the tide’s pendulum truth.’ Time for the poet, may swing linear by the clock, but its nature is more real when understood to be cyclic. Indeed, in reality, ‘at the end’ the ‘heart that is low now / will be at the full tomorrow.’ The tone of this poem isn’t angry or bitter about human suffering or estrangement from others. ‘At the end’ our human life needs right understanding about human aloneness, and we need reconciliation with suffering which is shared in God. Experiencing relationship with God transforms us from being simply passersby along the road to pilgrims seeking meaning, entrusted with a deep heart. Those supermarket bags of R.S.Thomas possessions given to Byron Rogers, are redolent with new interpretation when understood in the light of the poet’s relationship with his God. Everything matters to God. At one with himself in prayer, he is set ‘free’ by the very act of prayer itself. The cost of this freedom is patience in vigil, preparedness to sit and know dark periods of the heart’s waning, the ebb tide. To turn aside from city-lights, to claim another identity other than simply being a passer-by, means to stay faithful to this 'one view’ which, in time’s revelation will embrace all views. ’At the end’ there is no end, only human reconciliation in relationship with God Eternal. by Carol O’Connor

  • 'Was I waiting for something?': A reading and reflection on the poem 'Sea-watching' by R.S.Thomas

    Sea-watching by R.S.Thomas Grey waters, vast as an area of prayer that one enters. Daily, over a period of years I have let the eye rest on them. Was I waiting for something? Nothing but that continuous waving that is without meaning occurred. Ah, but a rare bird is rare. It is when one is not looking, at times one is not there that it comes. You must wear your eyes out, as others their knees. I became the hermit of the rocks habited with the wind and the mist. There were days, so beautiful the emptiness it might have filled, its absence was as its presence; not to be told any more, so single my mind after its long fast, my watching from praying. The poetry of 20th Century Anglo-Welsh Anglican priest and writer, R.S. Thomas, has been a travelling companion for me for some months during this year. A man, full of contradictions, enigmatic with a biting sarcasm; there’s certainly no drawing close to a warm and cuddly persona. Always concerned with the singularity of a person’s existence, his later poetry takes this further into the realm of the self’s individual relationship with God. Often this relationship he sets within a church environment or natural surrounding. His language can be prickly and sparse. Angular, but honest. His sharp clarity of perception can deliberately falter before a mature realisation that any life worth living with meaning in God, is going to involve new possibility as well surrendering before paradox and conundrum. In the 1950s during his second incumbency at Eglwys Fach along the west coastline of Wales, bird watching became a method of contemplation for R.S. Thomas. He would leave his family and parish for weeks at a time to watch them in remote islands and areas. Taken by their ancient beauty and independence he began to understand a similarity between bird watching and praying. He wrote: ‘It is exactly the same with the relationship between man and God that is known as prayer. Great patience is called for because no-one knows when God will choose to reveal himself.’ (from No-one: see endnote) The poem Sea-watching was written in the 1970s when R.S. Thomas lived at Aberdaron. Here, at the furthest western most tip of Wales he felt that he had reached the end of his personal pilgrimage. Ministering amongst Welsh speaking people he felt better able to focus on meaning and a person’s relationship with God. He had learned not only to ‘rest the eye’ on ‘grey waters’, but to ‘wear’ them out, as do ‘others their knees.’ One question only is asked in this poem: ‘Was I waiting for for something?’ By this, we are not just as reader invited into the poem, but asked to identify with the poet. As if response to this question the poem goes on to broaden this theme of ‘waiting’. But it also implies more questions for us as reader: What is it in our life that brings us meaning? Have we ever waited longing for a glimpse of ‘that rare bird’? What is it to wear our eyes out in prayer? How do we move and have our being in our relationship with God? The ‘continuous waving / that is without meaning’ is not just the constant movement of the ocean’s waves, but also our own body’s motion through time and place. There are periods, long stretches, when living appears to have no apparent reason. It’s simply a monotony of time passing. But, the poet encourages us, if we we do not stay vigilant in remaining present and aware living in each moment, then we may miss that glimpse of the ‘rare bird’: the one most unexpected moment that makes sense of all moments. Even then, this moment is most likely to come 'when one is not looking, / at times one is not there.’ Entering the landscape of an R.S. Thomas poem can be hard work. It’s not so much the general hills and valleys of his thought or the intuitive and natural imagery he uses that can challenge. But it’s in the minutiae and particular that our mind can get snagged. Like a track through hills which seems to be leading somewhere but then suddenly doubles back on itself, so can the language of R.S. Thomas’ flip over our thinking. The words: I became the hermit of the rocks, habited with the wind and the mist ring out with stark life-force, an existential clarion song. They are immediately followed by the last sentence of this poem. Travelling over 8 broken lines, the broad gaps on the page invite the mind to be set free for a moment beyond thought and language itself: There were days, so beautiful the emptiness it might have filled, its absence was as its presence; not to be told any more, so single my mind after its long fast, my watching from praying. The poet directs our thoughts toward imagining a moment so beautiful that it manages to bring presence and absence together into itself. Here, in this absent presence, the world itself becomes seen through. It’s a moment when paradox is paradoxically held and made sense of. All simply is. Distilled in restful ease the self can now be whom it was made to be. Solitary, at one with nature, with self, with God. The ‘long fast’, has been the time of turning the mind away from distraction and watching the ‘grey waters only.’ But the promise of this moment also teases us by its evasiveness. And we learn that the journey to it has spoken just as truly. There will always be the inevitable days of monotony and ‘continuous waving / without meaning.’ It’s into this very space, whether we are alert to it or not, that the ‘rare bird’ will come. The poem Sea-watching is as much about faith as it is about God’s grace of prayer at work in us. by Carol O’Connor ……………………… Sources: Sea-watching by R.S.Thomas from Laboratories of the Spirit, 1975 Collected Poems: 1945-1990 Phoenix Giants, 1993 p306 No-one by R. S. Thomas In Autobiographies: R.S.Thomas A Phoenix Paperback, 1997 page 99

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