The early reports on February 6 were of a massive earthquake with substantial casualties expected. Within a few days the death toll had climbed to the thousands and the stories of trapped people began to emerge. We looked for glimmers of hope, but the thought of hundreds still stuck and dying alone under collapsed buildings became overwhelming. I was in England at the time, visiting family and taking a holiday. I tried to enjoy myself, but the thought those suffering in Turkey and Syria raised afresh the age old question: where are you, God?
I had been reading R.S. Thomas (1913 – 2000) for about three years, and like a great many others met in his poetry an unflinching mind and a wide-open heart; a personality willing to take on the stark questions of life and God, even if conclusions were hard to come by. Once nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Thomas was a reclusive Welsh poet-priest, revered today as one of the most incisive voices of his generation.
While traveling in England the chance came to visit Wales for a day, so I shared my plans with an online affinity group which celebrates Thomas’ work. Jane responded immediately, “I’m the vicar of one of R.S.’s old parishes and would be happy to show you around.” I was just about the only passenger to get off the train at Welshpool where Jane was waiting with a big smile and rainbow coloured hair. We drove to St. Michael’s Church in the village of Manafon where Thomas served from 1942-54.
On the way I learn that Jane trained for ordination in later life following a long teaching career. Spending the last twelve years being reluctantly promoted, she now oversees several rural parishes. She and her husband Nick, a local flight instructor, are planning their retirement to a cottage on the coast by the end of the year. They’re English, but after thirty years in Wales this is clearly home. In a knitted vest embroidered with sheep, three dogs in tow, and a pilot herself, Jane well fits the description I once heard from Rowan Williams about his home country’s clergy: “Some of the most interesting and strange people I’ve met are Welsh vicars.” We could say the same of R.S. Thomas, though for different reasons.
Jane admits she does not appear a predictable successor to R.S. Thomas at St. Michael’s as he usually comes across austere, more at home with long lonely walks and birdwatching than with the chatter of church life. His tendency toward parishioner avoidance is well documented, some half-jokingly caricaturing him as the ogre of Wales. “I’m not sure what R.S. would think about a woman vicar, let alone one with rainbow coloured hair,” Jane remarks as we stand in St. Michael’s on a frigid February afternoon, just as bracing as it must have been when Thomas presided.
I ask Jane how she came to appreciate Thomas and she shares about being handed an English class which required a unit on poetry. Stumbling upon Thomas, Jane found him useful for coursework in rural Welsh classrooms. For farm children less than interested in poetry, Thomas’ early work reflecting on the lives of hill peasants piqued some interest. “He sounds like he’s writing about my grandad,” Jane shares of one boy’s reaction. I ask how she ended up at St. Michael’s, “I suppose it just came along with the other churches I look after now… Eight or ten people attend here on a Sunday. R.S. would have seen about the same number.” Again, this is where the similarities between the two vicars stop.
I had come to St. Michael’s and Manafon for melancholy. After all, this is where Thomas wrote In a Country Church, one of his most stirring poems on prayer and God’s silence. It’s said that Thomas arrived in rural Wales to find the country of his imagination. Maybe he had come to church work to find God. Reading the poetry, you doubt he found either very easily:
“To one kneeling down no word came…”
In a Country Church is remembered because it captures what so many of us feel in prayer: a silence which feels like absence. As others have noted, Thomas reflected on this theme his whole life, especially in his later work. But Manafon is where you sense things began to take root personally and poetically. R.S. and his wife Elsi (a very accomplished painter in her own right) had one child there, a boy. Their other first-born was the self-published collection The Stones of the Field (Elsi designed the cover art), which garnered early critical attention. Much of the work laments the steady disappearance of Welsh farm life with the encroachment of mechanization and industry, also capturing a bleak portrait of hill country existence. Thomas was deeply ambivalent about modern and post-modern progress, the monsters from the East devouring Welsh language and culture. The only other theme he seemed more ambivalent about was God. In many poems you hear Thomas asking: has God flown the coop?
At Manafon Thomas faced the early mid-life questions as he went about visiting, marrying, baptizing, and inevitably burying some of his parishioners. It was where he first took the full weight of parish responsibility, became a father, and tried to make his mark on the literary world. God was in the mix somewhere but is difficult to locate exactly. Serving at St. Michael’s from age twenty-nine to forty-one, what had his thirties meant to R.S. Thomas? With a close reading of In a Country Church you feel that Manafon was where he earnestly searched and began to seriously grow as a poet, both in the church and up in the hills.
Late in life Thomas collected much of his work into audio recordings, though I’m not sure how he’d feel about being downloaded today. Jane took out her iPad and offered to play In a Country Church as we sat in the cold and quiet. This side of both the industrial and technological revolutions, we heard the voice of an old man reciting the words of one much younger: “Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long…” If Manafon was where God went on mute for Thomas, it was also where Thomas began to seriously speak up, pressing his experience into the now famous verse about God’s imperceptibility in a grey, forgotten church. What did he preach the week he wrote that poem? To my knowledge none of Thomas’ sermons are in circulation. Hundreds of his poems are printed and reprinted today.
“I suppose we all know what that feels like,” says Jane as we stand under the window near the alter of which Thomas writes, “the sense that God’s not talking. I’ve had those times in my life. I think that’s why so many people find his work helpful.” I agree. Misery loves company, and in the misery of God’s apparent absence human company can be a welcome relief. We wrap up our time around the churchyard, and Jane suggests we stop by the airfield to visit Nick.
Sitting in the sun, watching the planes take off and land, I can’t believe my luck – a sunny winter day in Wales. Nick wanders over for a cup of tea and is just as warm and interesting as Jane. “Want to go up?” he offers. I ask if he’s joking. “No, I’ve got a gap between students, and we can fly over Manafon if you like.” To my surprise within twenty minutes we’re high over the idyllic Welsh countryside in a little two-seater. “There’s the church. Beautiful area. Beautiful day,” Nick remarks over the headset. “Yes,” I reply, “I doubt R.S. ever saw things from this vantage point.” Looking down at the still, small church, this feels more like God’s vantage point. Thomas depicts God as a bird of prey in several poems, sometimes as migratory in others. The irony of gaining a bird’s eye view of Thomas’ first parish is not lost on me.
The day he wrote In a Country Church R.S. Thomas felt God fall silent in Manafon. Dappled in winter sunlight, the hillsides seemed to be speaking quite clearly the day I visited. However uncertain, I suspect Thomas must also have noticed at St. Michael’s a not dissimilar light filtering through the stained-glass window displaying the crucifixion: “a winter tree, Golden with the fruit of a man’s body.” When God isn’t audible, at least he’s occasionally visible.
The day I fly from Heathrow I search for the multi-faith prayer room in the back reaches of the terminal. It’s noon hour and unsurprisingly I’m the only Christian in the room. About a dozen bow eastward on prayer mats behind a small divider. Travelers, employees of the airport, they all slip off their shoes upon entrance. I sit in the corner on one of three empty chairs and think of the children in the earthquake zone. Our prayer postures are the only visible indicators of God’s whereabouts, but it’s enough for me that day. I’m glad the room is quiet, and I sob into my hands.
R.S. Thomas, In a Country Church,An Acre of Land, Montgomeryshire Print. Co., Newtown, (1952)