This Lent, Jim Quigley and Deborah Meister are collaborating on a series of forums that use poetry and the visual arts to explore spiritual themes of Lent. Because there will be no forum this week, and because we fell in love with the material and did not want to have to cut any of it, we are sending this week’s meditation out in the form of a Daily Cup.
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
R.S. Thomas was born on March 29, 1913, in Cardiff, Wales. Thomas was an Anglican, a parish priest, and although he died thirteen years ago his extraordinary work lives on. Largely religious, Thomas’ poetry often speaks of God but does so, initially, by depicting God’s absence rather than God’s presence; Deus Absconditus – the hidden God. David E. Anderson contends that Thomas’ poetry is slowly becoming recognized as among the best and most important religious poetry of the twentieth century. Like the century in which he lived, writes Anderson, Thomas’ poetry reflects “the pull of doubt that defined those decades for many, including believers, and as such stands outside the mainstream of the dominant, God-affirming, sacramental poetry that looks back to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ affirmation that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” And yet, as Anderson notes, Hopkins was also the author of the terrible sonnets, – bitter spiritual laments that Thomas himself described as ‘but a human repetition of the cry from the cross’: My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? Rowan Williams has written that R.S. Thomas was – like one of the poet’s spiritual mentors, Soren Kierkegard – a great articulator of an uneasy faith.
The Rt. Rev. Lord Harries, in a lecture on Thomas given at Gresham College in 2009, said that the language of Thomas’ poetry is largely non-lyrical, unlike some of his early influences like W. B. Yeats, because he was suspicious of the capacity for language to convey a certain eloquence that a seduces us away from the truth and harshness of life. Perhaps Thomas’ view of life was influenced by the fierce landscape of Wales, from his observing the brutal life of Welsh farmers whose lives he said were “mortgaged to the grasping soil” or from his own asceticism.
The honesty and audacity in Thomas’ poetry reminds me of the work of theologian Rowan Williams. In a sermon titled The Dark Night Williams describes how it’s ‘easy to go round and round the paths for a long time.’ The paths he describes are the circular journeys of piety, radicalism or conservatism in the church – the ways in which by affiliating God to our particular perspective we fall into a delusional and religious game designed to comfort and justify the style of religious life we have found congenial. These are, Williams writes, divine projections and wish fulfillments, the source for all of the unkind things psychologists have always tended to accuse religion of… God is a word or a concept with a well-defined function in the way we order our life, and when we have explained that function, we have explained God. Neither William’s theology nor the poetry of R.S. Thomas allow us to define God with such neatness, if at all. The only defense religion has or ever will have against the charge of cozy fantasy is the kind of experience or reflection normally referred to by Christian writers as the night of the spirit, writes Williams. The night of the spirit is a religious experience that, if we have the honesty to look at it, is emptiness; it makes nonsense of all religion, conservative or radical, and all piety… The dark night is God’s attack on religion and if you genuinely desire union with the unspeakable God then you must be prepared to have your religious world shattered. If you think devotional practices, theological insights, even charitable actions give you some sort of purchase on God, you are still playing games!
R.S. Thomas’ poetry urges us to go not to where we believe God to be but rather into the depths of God’s mystery. In The Coming, God holds in his hand a small a globe. “Look,” God says to the son. “Far off, as through water, the son sees a scorched land of fierce colour. The light burned there; crusted buildings cast their shadows, a bright serpent, a river uncoiled itself, radiant with slime. The son sees, on a bare hill, a bare tree saddening the sky. Many people held out their thin arms to it, as though waiting for a vanished April to return to its crossed boughs. The son watched them. Let me go there, he said.”
In The Coming Jesus is compelled to enter the globe not because it’s safe or pretty but only because he knows that all of the world is of God – the scorched land of fierce color, the light, the serpent, the river and the slime, the bare tree on a bare hill with crossed boughs to which people reach their arms hoping for Spring. This is no sending, it’s a showing, and without knowing, the son begs, “let me go there.”
R.S. Thomas said that he was content to call himself a Christian because the Christian belief that God has taken suffering into himself is the most profound and satisfying answer to the great problem of suffering. He poetry is a theology of an untenanted tree. I can think of no better answer to the question of Good Friday, of Christ on the cross, than Thomas’ image of reaching into a form on a hillside left by a missing hare and finding the warmth of what is no longer there – that in the wake of God’s absence Jesus discovers the place God has already been. With Christ, let us go there, to the cross, where will find the warmth and love of a God already gone.
I have chosen The Coming for our second week for many reason, but among them is that the window in Nourse Hall has always reminded me of this poem.
Salvador Dali, Christ on the Cross
I looked in vain for a large image of this; the original is about seven feet by four feet. In other words, it dominates the viewer, who encounters in it a Christ who is on the same scale as he is. Hanging on a cross in a dark sky, Christ hovers over the waters of Port Lligat, where Dali was living at the time. To the viewer, of course, it looks like the cosmic Christ is hovering over the world, the watery scene evoking the first verses of Genesis, when the spirit of the Lord hovered over the face of the deep and brought forth life.
Dali painted this in 1951, but it draws heavily upon an image four hundred years older. In 1550, St. John of the Cross (whom we mentioned in last week’s forum, and who exerted a strong influence on Eliot’s poem, Ash Wednesday) had a vision of the crucified Christ and immediately rushed to draw what he had seen. The striking thing about John’s image, of course, is the angle: this is the crucifixion seen from above, as it could only have been viewed by God. The tormented Christ, the writhing limbs, the fragile hands pinned with enormous, oversized nails, the drops of sweat that fall from the failing flesh — these are viewed with all the awful clarity of a father who must watch his son perish, and accept that the son willed it so.
Dali, too, dreamed his image, but it was different. There are no nails, no sweat, no blood. This is the cosmic Christ, the Pantocrator, hovering over and offering himself for the creation he loves.
Below, all is “so clear, so calm, so bright” (George Herbert) — utterly unlike the war-torn wreckage of Europe. It must have been an act of supreme faith to stand amid the carnage Europe had inflicted upon itself and to imagine this. It must have taken deep conviction to reach, not for the broken Christ, but for the universal one, to hear for the first time the words “Final Solution” and to hold fast to the belief that God was still God.
Perhaps that’s why, at first, this world seems empty of humanity: because we had marred it so. Upon closer examination, one man stands in the foreground, looking out. It is hard to escape the suspicion that this is the world Jesus died to create — a world of perfect tranquility. The serene figure on the cross imparts his peace to the war-torn world, redemption made flesh in more ways than one. It invites us to say, with the Christ of Thomas’ poem, “Let me go there.”
And then we realize that, by God’s grace, we already have.