In The Tomb

On View: Untitled, by D. Davis. Source.

I have always been fond of the poetry of R.S. Thomas, Welsh priest and poet.

His poetry reflects his life long struggle to know the Living God and he was never at ease with the bland platitudes of religion and was keen to allow questioning of rigid creeds and dogmas.

His poems honestly faced the problems of praying to God whether ordained or not. Only a man who has spent hours on his knees could write as he does in his poem "In Church":

"Is this where God hides
From my searching?
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".

Far from being a man of no faith, Thomas was a man of Job- like faith, struggling to make sense of the world and belief in a God of Love. 

Conventional theological answers did not satisfy him nor the facile fundamentalism of a faith that asked no questions. He saw the real problems of trying to believe in God and maintaining that belief in doubt. By articulating his doubts in his poetry he helped others be honest in their doubts too.

Which one of us has not had doubts about whether or not our prayers are heard or the existence of God ?

"To one kneeling down no word came
Only the wind's song

I never thought other than
that God is a great absence."

These words echo the loneliness faced by even Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross when he said " My God, My God, Why have You forsaken Me ?

But amidst seeming despair his fierce faith shines through,
a faith that had been tested by the silence of God

"His are the echoes we follow
the footprints he has just left
We put our hands in
his side hoping to find
it warm."

He stood in a long tradition of those who had wrestled with God back to Jacob,Job, Isaiah, Doubting Thomas the disciple, St John of the Cross, Master Eckhart, St Teresa, Mother Theresa.

R.S.Thomas knew that God is a mystery to which our human words only point to by analogy. Our statements, words and images must always be incomplete and provisional.

In his autobiography, he said that there was nothing more important than the relationship between Man and God nor anything more difficult than establishing it.

"We have to live virtually the whole of our lives in the presence of an invisible and mute God, but that was never a bar to anyone seeking to come into contact with him. That is what prayer is."
Yet Thomas knew that Jesus was a window into God.
Again and again he refers to the centrality of the Cross and Resurrection.

He saw "love in a dark crown
of thorns blazing and a winter tree
golden with fruit of a man's body."

"I have looked in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place by themselves
like the piled grave clothes of love's risen body."

You can only write poetry like that if you have thought long and deep about your faith. He had looked deeply into the heart of things:

"We live best within listening distance
of the silence we call God."

"I would have things to say
to this God
at the judgement storming at Him
as Job stormed
with the eloquence
of the abused heart"

"Circular as our way is
it leads not back to that snake-haunted
garden, but onward to the tall city of glass
that is the laboratory of the spirit."

Towards the end of his life Thomas summed up his position in these words of Tennyson :

"By faith and faith alone, embrace
Believing where we cannot prove."

God, says RS Thomas, reveals himself to us according to our capacity to receive him.

In these last few days of Holy Week I come with both: faith AND doubt. I come with both to lay both at the foot of the cross, under the authority of the Word of Jesus
and submit myself to the authority of the Word, even while I struggle to understand and accept all that is in it.

There is a nice reflection here on the confusion, uncertainty and disbelief that came before the Easter joy and Alleluias.

The post is titled "The Emptiness Of The Tomb " by Revd Canon Rosalind Brown at Durham Cathedral but you may find the font colour difficult to read.

I have reposted an extract  by R.S. Thomas quoted in her post below.

"The empty tomb, and the women's experience at it, assures us that we too can test our faith on emptiness. 

But if the empty tomb is all there is, that in itself is not good news.

Instead the untenanted cross, the empty tomb, are the essential preludes and signposts to the resurrection encounter.

Emptiness is a part of our life, and we shut it out at our peril".

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