“That Great Absence”

Although I’m drawn to R.S. Thomas for his views on nature, I often find myself sticking around to listen to his views on religion and God. Part of the appeal is his willingness to admit his own doubts about God.

IN CHURCH

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.

It’s seems little short of amazing to have a minister writing lines like “Is this where God hides/From my searching?” or “There is no other sound/In the darkness but the sound of a man/Breathing, testing his faith.” Equally remarkable, what does one do with “These are the hard ribs/Of a body that our prayers have failed/To animate.” Of course, it’s the sheer poetry of the last five lines that holds me most in the end, “testing his faith/On emptiness, nailing his questions/One by one to an untenanted cross.”

But as I’ve mentioned in an earlier discussion, I’m also drawn to his discussion of “the quality/Of its silences,” an aspect that is more central in:

VIA NEGATIVA

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

I’m particularly fond of “the empty silence/Within, the place where we go/Seeking, not in hope to arrive or find,” perhaps because it comes close to describing my own state of mind when I take time to meditate. I never meditate with the hope of arriving somewhere or finding something. Just the opposite. I manage to free myself from things and in that freedom find revitalization, but I suspect that what I find there is very similar to the feeling I sometimes get while hiking or birding, perhaps echoes of His passing.

4 thoughts on ““That Great Absence”

  1. I love Via Negativa, I’ve blogged about it in the past, the imagery is so beautiful: “…the darkness
    Between stars. His are the echoes We follow, the footprints he has just Left”

    Thomas is so honest about the times of “absence” and “silence” … and when we are fortunate enough to catch the “echoes of his passing” we don’t always stand still long enough to appreciate them…

    I have just bought “The man who went into the west” a recent biography of Thomas, so am hoping to learn a bit more about the man.

    • I’m sure you will love Byron Rogers’ ‘The man who went into the West.’ It manages to be acutely perceptive and moving while also being hilariously funny. It is one of the best biographies I have ever read.

  2. Faith is a beautiful and mysterious thing. It’s the most precious thing I have, and it’s mine through a gift from God. I pray daily for my faith to grow.

    You didn’t discuss your meditation, but your pictures are the subject of some of my prayer. St. Paul tells us “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” They are the mirror of God.

    Empty churches are great places for prayer. I go to one a couple times a week.

  3. Many thanks for posting In Church. I was reminded of one late afternoon in a 7th Century church in the UK as the light was dying and the only thing that broke the silence was the sound of the wind off the sea under the gap in the door

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