R.S. Thomas, a sermon by the Chaplain, First Week Hilary Term, 2013


Sermon 1st week Hilary Term 2013, Mark 1: 4-11; R.S. Thomas


This term we are focussing upon exploring Christianity through the arts in several different ways. On Sunday 10 February there will be a morning service broadcast live on BBC Radio 4, centred upon faith and the Arts. Ben Quash will be preaching, Professor of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College, London. That event starts a whole week of talks, lectured, drama and music entitled Heaven sent: The Beauty of Holiness – A week exploring Christianity through the Arts hosted by the Oxford University Chaplains, and all based at the University Church. It includes the poets Nicola Slee and Michael Symmons-Roberts on ‘The Poetry of Faith’; music and discussion with composer James MacMillan; the play Two Planks and a Passion by Anthony Minghella, directed by Elisabeth Dutton; and an illustrated talk with the artists Nicholas Mynheer and Roger Wagner discussing, ‘Can Christian Art be Modern?’ Just pick up one of these cards at the back of chapel to find out all about that.


And in this series of sermons this term, we will be drawing about that deep and ancient relationship between poetry and faith, how words of art have been able to express our deepest spiritual longings and complexity. Our own Provost, will be speaking on that great poet, preacher and Dean of St. Paul’s, John Donne; Ronald Hawkes from the Wykham benefice in Oxfordshire will be preaching on that religious sceptic Philip Larkin; Carla Grosch-Müller from Oxford’s United Reformed Church will be here to talk about the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Alison Milbank, from Nottingham is an expert on Dante and will be here in seventh week and the series finishes with an examination of the relationship between theology and poetry by Dr. Susan Gillingham, Fellow in Theology here. But to start the series I have chosen a poet who, as the Guardian obituary wrote of him, was ‘Riddled with contradictions, and charted the decline of modern life and his native Wales in bleak poetry, tinged with faint sunlight.’


By all acounts R.S. Thomas, the Welsh clergyman and poet who died in the year 2000 at the age of 87, was a miserable old so-and-so and full of paradoxes. He was a fierce defender of Wales and the Welsh language and yet wrote his poems in English. Like Wordsworth, he was inspired by nature and the land and yet hated the people who lived and worked on it. He married and English woman and sent his son to an English boarding school and when he wrote his autobiography in Welsh, entitled Neb, nobody and referred to himself in the third person as the boy or the rector.

So this ‘cantankerous clergyman,’ and ‘fiery poet-priest’ was acclaimed late in his life by the likes of Kingsley Amis and John Betjeman as one of the best poets living at that time. Perhaps one of the most paradoxical of his characteristics was his love of God and seemingly at other times hate for God. What emerged in the poetry from this situation was a kind of ruthless honesty evident in poems such as Folk Tale, a touchingly honest poem about prayer:


Prayers like gravel

Flung at the sky’s

window, hoping to attract

the loved one’s

attention. But without

visible plaits to let

down for the believer

to climb up,

to what purpose open

that far casement?

I would

have refrained long since

but that peering once

through my locked fingers

I thought that I detected

the movement of a curtain.


For Thomas the image of the cross was crucial. Indeed he has said that the reason he is content to call himself a Christian is because the Christian belief that God has taken suffering into himself is the most profound and satisfactory answer to the great problem of suffering. The image of the cross occurs in a number of poems. It was a conviction he expressed in his poem ‘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.


But even though his theology of the cross was central, Thomas was acutely aware of only knowing God at all by his seeming absence. That is, by what we don’t know about God. A notion which reaches back to apophatic theology and the English mystical writings such as the fourteenth-century Cloud of Unknowing. Richard Harries, in his lecture on Thomas at Gresham College wrote that: ‘What he [Thomas] wants to keep as an eternal possibility is God as God, not simply preserve a hallowed image which we can control. The title of Simone Weil’s best know book is Waiting on God, which is the theme of one of the essays in it. The image of waiting is also central to one of Thomas’s best loved poems:


Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.


‘This brings out well the fact that all words purportedly from God come to us through human words, and as such will inevitably be limited, that is in some way distorting: ‘something is lost’. We can only speak of God at all through our human metaphors, and every metaphor of image we use is as untrue as it is true. So our human images that try to reach up and refer to God have continually to be made, and broken and remade. One image has constantly to be set against another, which contradicts and corrects it, and then this image in its turn has to be qualified in a new way.’ [Richard Harries]


So you may think that the poem we heard this evening, The Kingdom, is one of R.S. Thomas’ more positive and upbeat poems, telling us how simple it is to find the kingdom of God. And that when we do find the Kingdom of God it has much to offer

Kneeling before an altar

Of wood in a stone church

In summer, waiting for the God

To speak; the air a staircase

For silence; the sun’s light

Ringing me, as though I acted

A great rôle. And the audiences

Still; all that close throng

Of spirits waiting, as I,

For the message.

Prompt me, God;

But not yet. When I speak,

Though it be you who speak

Through me, something is lost.

The meaning is in the waiting.


Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life.


Here R.S.Thomas holds over the conclusion of each sentence deliberately disrupting the reading of each line. The effect is to underline the paradox of the Christian life: we await the coming of the Kingdom, dreaming of it, but not yet seeing it fully. But if we only dare, it is easy, he says to get there:


… [it] takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.


Thomas invites the reader or listener to offer themselves green as a leaf but there is also an underlying notion that this might be impossible to achieve. ‘All you have to do is …’ this, but there is a wry smile in the poem that knows how we are not simple or green. The garden of Eden has gone.


The need for Christ, therefore, becomes more apparent and his Cross. The poem is perfectly apt for the paradox of todays’ new testament reading. Today we celebrate the baptism of Christ and many this morning renewed their baptism vows in churches. Baptism is the symbol of initiation into the Kingdom and of rebirth, but how hard it is even when we know that the kingdom is there for us, to live as if it is a reality. John Baptises and calls for repentance, Christ comes and is baptised, his authority as the son of God is acknowledged from on high, but, in the next passage of Mark’s gospel, Christ immediately goes into the wilderness where he is starved almost to the point of death and undergoes the mental torment of satanic temptation before his ministry can begin.


R.S. Thomas may have been dark in mood, but he was honest. The paradox of and his poetry, bleak with moments of sunlight, highlights the paradoxes that exist between the world and God, between faith and humanity, within ourselves and our spiritual lives. The words of poetry, just as the notes of music, can express something of the ineffable in us and the inexpressible God, and of the relationship of each to the other. I hope, as we journey together this term into the interwoven tapestries of poetry and of faith, that we can go deeper into our own realties and find, in our complex humanity, the divine spark which urges us on to seek again the creative and life-giving domain of the kingdom of God.

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