Carys Walsh, The Passion through Poetry, Wednesday 23rd March 2016 at St George's Church

Carys Walsh – Holy Week - Wednesday 23rd  March 2016 at St George's Church

The P a s s i o n t h r o u g h t h e p o e t r y o f R S Thoma s

1 9 1 3 - 2 0 0 0

Many years ago I was asked whether I am a Good Friday
Christian or an Easter Day Christian; someone more at
home in the darkness of the Passion’s crucifixion, or in the
celebration of resurrection.

I pondered this question over the years, and have often been
struck by the essential paradox at the heart of our marking of
Passiontide and Easter: that whether we are Good Friday or
Easter Day Christians, caught in the passion or the praise, we
are always post-Easter Christians. We are already and
perpetually shaped by an understanding that the waiting for
resurrection is over. The bleakness of waiting, the pain of
God’s absence - God’s death, is always framed somewhere
by an understanding of God’s presence, and when we speak
of God’s death, God’s absence, we immediately bring this
God before us. In Passiontide, it seems, we are somehow in
a liminal space, walking the road of death toward life; naming
the agony of loss as we bear the tension of re-birth to come.
And it is here, in this space where presence and absence
tumble over each other, in this liminal space which
characterises Passiontide, that we may find - and that I discovered - the poetry of the great priest and poet R. S.Thomas.

Thomas, who died in 2000, was still very much an active poet
when I discovered his work like someone with a raging thirst
stumbling across water. After years of struggling with, and
rejecting religious certainties, and the idea that clarity in faith
was vital, in Thomas I discovered someone whose gift was to
hold ambivalence and make it good. His gift was to reveal a
richness and depth and passion to our life of faith which went
beyond the straightforward, the black and white, and allowed
the absurd or the mysterious to be just that; allowed a sense
both of God’s absence and presence, and allowed that the
human experience of faith is often ambivalent, and may be all
the richer for it. His gift was poetry which could hold faith,
doubt, tension, darkness, pain, acceptance, uncertainty and
expectancy: poetry of the Passion, whether or not that was
his theme. From all this, if you're not familiar with R. S. Thomas, it’s
probably no surprise to hear that he was a man who was shot through with ambiguity and tension in all aspects of life.
He had, as he put it, a ‘fragile hold’ on his identity’. He was
known as grumpy, unwelcoming, curmudgeonly, contrary,
alternately kind and unpleasant; a man of contradictions and
fault lines. And yet he discovered that it was the very fault
lines within him which generated his poetry: ‘great art is born
out of tension’ one writer said to him, in words which
transformed Thomas’s struggles.
And it’s probably also not surprising that in his work we find
the story of a questing soul, of a man deeply engaged over 50
years in his search for God, never satisfied with easy
answers, constantly questioning God’s way with humankind,
and our struggle to know a God at once loving, intimate, but
also apparently arbitrary and distant. And all this was
explored through poetry, which for Thomas an intrinsically
religious endeavour. He called it ‘the conduit between God
and man’ and an activity born of the poet’s ability to be ‘in
uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable
reaching after fact and reason’’.  So in Thomas’s compelling and enriching poetry, we find just
this: no reaching after fact and reason, but the paradoxical
God who is absent and present, transcendent and immanent,
in the constellations and the molecules; and nowhere is this
paradox more evident than in Thomas’s poetry of the Cross.

Poems of the Cross
These poems of the Cross are striking examples of how
Thomas writes; how he builds dense, evocative images
leaving the poem shimmering with meaning but without ever
settling on a single final sense. His cross is usually
‘untenanted’ as he puts it, pointing not to where God is (as in
a crucifix), but where God has been or will be; pointing to an
empty place which both highlights an absence and brings to
mind what is not there and so also highlights a presence. And
so paradoxically the absence becomes a presence, and the
presence an absence.
This interwoven presence and absence, and loss, so much the
character of Holy Week, was a hallmark of Thomas’s poetry,
and his work sometimes layers meaning so densely and uses
such protean metaphors that the Cross does not become
something we must believe or an image which points us
directly towards redemption, to salvation, or solely to the
death and resurrection of Christ, but they invite us into the
mystery of God, invite us to ask questions. And they often
speak into our humanity, resonating with some of our most
powerful experiences, as in the poem Pietà.

Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon,
Remote witnesses
Of the still scene.
And in the foreground
The tall Cross,
Sombre, untenanted,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid’s arms.

From Pietà, 1966, Penguin CP, p59

This poem carries a tone of loss, grief and desolation, but
though we know Mary must be grieving as she cradles her
son, her loss is not directly alluded to – if anything it is the
Cross itself which grieves – aching for ‘the Body / that is back
in the cradle / of a maid’s arms, and so the sense of loss is
more diffuse – more universal. Life and death are brought
together; incarnation and passion, past, present and future
are held by the central image of the untenanted Cross, and
the simple word ‘for’:

The tall Cross,
Sombre, untenanted,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid’s arms
Is this ‘for’ for a body which has gone through death and has
been lowered from the cross? For a body in the cradle of a
maid’s arms which will at a future date hang on the cross? Or
is this ‘for’ on behalf of: aching, mourning the infant born to
die. This is spare poetry which is nevertheless layered, rich,
demanding our involvement, not letting us get away with any
easy response, as we stare at the empty Cross.
Again, Passion poems in Counterpoint, Thomas’s
idiosyncratic spiritual history of humankind, draw us to an empty Cross, begging our questions of this still point of our
faith, which hums with meaning :
From Counterpoint
Not the empty tomb
but the uninhabited
cross. Look long enough
and you will see the arms
put on leaves. Not a crown
of thorns, but a crown of flowers
haloing it, with a bird singing
as though perched on paradise’s threshold.
We have over-furnished
our faith. Our churches
are as limousines in the procession
towards heaven. But the verities
remain: a de-nuclearised
cross, uncontaminated
by our coinage; the chalice’s
ichor; and one crumb of bread
on the tongue for the bird-like
intelligence to be made tame by.

Counterpoint, p37, 1990.

This uninhabited cross, juxtaposed with the empty tomb,
plays with ideas of resurrection, of the life in death which is
at the heart of Holy Week and Easter. Here, as we stare at
the space where Christ was – as we stare into the absence,
we find a presence begins to appear - the cross begins to
change before our eyes into the tree of life – the feel is of
the medieval depiction of the flowering cross, with crown of
thorns morphing into a far more benign foliage - a symbol of
the passion turns into a symbol of new life.
For Thomas here, what lies at the heart of faith, beyond the
contamination as he would see it of ‘over-furnishing’ are the
Cross and the Eucharistic crumb of bread. These are symbols
which confound our ability to understand, but which reach
into our hearts and minds with the paradox of life in death;
the paradox of presence in absence. The paradox that even
as we walk the way of death, we carry the seeds of new life.
So I leave you with a question: are you a Good Friday
Christian or an Easter Day Christian; someone more at
home in the darkness of the Passion’s crucifixion, or in the
celebration of resurrection. Or are you like Thomas, who
seems to be able to occupy that liminal space of Holy Week,
walking the road of death toward life; naming the agony of
loss as we bear the tension of re-birth to come.

The Coming
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
With slime.
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.

From H’m, 1972, Penguin CP, 234.
Holland Park Benefice