Yesterday, it seemed to me, the Anglican priest Thomas Traherne made the consolations of the spiritual life seem so readily available. Today, it seems as though those consolations can be very distant, beyond my grasp. My go-to bard for such moments of faithful doubt is another Anglican priest, the Welsh poet, RS Thomas. You could open his Collected Poems* almost at random and find the wrangled wisdom of a faithful doubter, a committed questioner. Faith, as to be fair Traherne said the other day, demands effort. Here is an extract from RS’s poem Inside.
... Inside me,
stalactite and stalagmite,
ideas have formed and become
rigid. To the crowd
I am all outside.
To the pot-holing few there is a way
in along passages that become
narrower and narrower,
that lead to the chamber
too low to stand up in,
where the breath condenses
to the cold and locationless
cloud we call truth. It
is where I think.
Ideas have formed and become rigid: it’s the rigidity that stifles us. And then when RS Thomas reaches the chamber at the centre of his being he is forced to his knees. This is the ‘cloud we call truth’, and there will be times when we are given a glimpse of the light that lies beyond, sometimes through thought and meditation, sometimes as pure, unexpected, inexplicable gift.
The children building sand castles in the rain at Aberdaron were enjoying the moment together, despite the cold cloud raining over them. Let’s pray for the grace to live in the moment and to live in hope and truth.
In her long poem, The Soul’s Travelling, Elizabeth Barrett Browning is by the sea as well, though not at Broadstairswhere we were yesterday. In a previous stanza she described a hollow where she could hear, but not see, the ocean ebbing and flowing across the beach. Broadstairs is a bit more open than that, but in the next bay after the pier I used to snatch a few minutes of silence in a hollow at the foot of the cliff. The curlews and other sea birds were calling right through winter, but the silence was still all around.
Except that sound, the place is full
Of silences, which when you cull
By any word, it thrills you so
That presently you let them grow
To meditation's fullest length
Across your soul with a soul's strength:
And as they touch your soul, they borrow
Both of its grandeur and its sorrow,
That deathly odour which the clay
Leaves on its deathlessness alwày.
from The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Volume II.
Another beach for silence in the sounds of the sea is Aberdaron in West Wales – follow the tag to read more posts about it. The church is at the top of the beach and the sea’s singing accentuates the message embroidered on this seat runner. You don’t need external silence to be still; the Lord is on your side wherever you are, you vessel of clay, holding his treasure! (2 Corinthians 4:7)
In another age, in another life, Thomas Traherne might have made a monk. In another age, in another life, another Thomas found his vocation as a Cistercian monk and writer. That’s how it was beginning to look in 1947 when Merton wrote the following journal entry. The message of the kneeler above contrasts with Traherne’s message in the last two days, ‘The soul is made for action, and cannot rest till it be employed’; at least superficially. But Traherne was also counselling the practice of meditation which begins with stillness. How that is achieved depends on the individual to a great extent; the fact that I came to stillness when cutting the grass was not appreciated by all my superiors… Over to Merton, who had chosen, been called to, a life of silence but not necessarily one of stillness.
The Cistercian life is energetic. There are tides of vitality running through the whole community that generate energy even in people who are lazy… We go out to work like a college football team taking the field.
Trappists believe that everything that costs them is God’s will. Anything that makes you suffer is God’s will. If it makes you sweat, it is God’s will. But we have serious doubts about the things which demand no expense of physical energy. Are they really the will of God? Hardly! …
If we want something, we can easily persuade ourselves that what we want is God’s will just as long as it turns out to be difficult to obtain.
Reading the two Thomases together, I wonder that any of us ever find any stillness in modern life. I no longer have access to a big, noisy, green, ride-on mower. But I do have the garden to turn to: news from there tomorrow.
Professor Kate Bulinski is a paeleontologist at Bellarmine University in America. I wanted to share her guest blog at the Vatican Observatory website, as it challenges us to face up to our responsibilities to observe God’s Creation and our part in it – and to start to restore, renew and revive what we have unwittingly damaged. Here is a short sample from her post. Click on her name above to read it in full. A good Advent read. Let’s pray for the enthusiasm to carry on despite the odds, like these children, digging at Aberdaron beach, despite the rain.
I sometimes ask my students to contemplate what the fossil record of the 21st century would look like. Would we have layers of sediment embedded with plastic debris and electronic waste? … What would future humans (or our evolutionary descendants!) have to say about this era of Earth history? And perhaps more importantly, what would God say about how we responded to the charge to care for creation and how we responded once we realized the mistakes we were making?
Life can be hectic and tiring. Just ask the teachers and pupils who are now worn out and washed up, ready for a holiday!
Jesus and the disciples knew the feeling. His Apostles had just been trusted to go and preach themselves: they preached that men should do penance:And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them. Tiring and emotional enough, but while they were away, Herod had John the Baptist murdered, the cousin of Jesus and a familiar hero to some of the Apostles.
And the apostles coming together unto Jesus, related to him all things that they had done and taught. And he said to them: Come apart into a desert place, and rest a little. For there were many coming and going: and they had not so much as time to eat. And going up into a ship, they went into a desert place apart.
Mark 6:12-13; 30-32
So find your Aberdaron, your place of pilgrimage, your desert place; somewhere quiet, away from people and distractions. That’s what Jesus did, after all.
But be prepared! Your peace and quiet may be short-lived. Remember the next thing that happens – the crowd follow the boats and Jesus has to preach and feed the 5.000. Some peace and quiet!
Perhaps we should make a point of creating quiet space for each other over the holidays. Even just a couple of minutes on the beach or visiting a church, then back to watching the children wandering into danger … And letting teenagers lie in can mean a peaceful breakfast for everyone else!
Saint Patrick, whose feast falls today, left a few holy wells around Ireland, and so would surely approve of this article from USPG’s Praying with the World Church. Surely every well is a Holy Well? R.S. Thomas, sometime vicar of Aberdaron, would say so.
Myanmar: Article by San Lin, a development officer with the
Church of the Province of Myanmar.
For many years, the people of Wa Me Klar village, high in the
mountains, had to climb for three hours to reach the nearest
stream that provided clean drinking water. Often this was a job
for women and children, who would struggle to carry the heavy
buckets. But now the villagers’ lives have been transformed
because water pipes have been installed by the Church of
Myanmar. No-one has to climb and fetch water because water
comes to the village.
‘Now we can take a bath in our houses,’ a 60-year old
woman tells me. The village chief says: ‘I can grow vegetables
and raise goats inside my compound. Thank you very much!’
For decades, this village, in Hpa’an Diocese, was targeted by
the military. In the mid-70s, most of the houses were burned
and the people fled. But since peace negotiations in 2005, the
people have been returning home.
There are 30 households, with around 100 residents. Before
the water programme there were many cases of diarrhoea and
other illnesses. But now the people understand about sanitation.
When the church arrived in the village, they showed the
people how to lay pipes and build cisterns, and they worked
hard together to achieve their goal.
Water Jug from Aberdaron Anglican Church (Church in Wales)
We continue reading the guide to Saint Hywyn’s Church. It is sobering to sit in Canterbury and read that this church dates from the first half of the sixth century. Pope Gregory only sent Augustine to Kent in 597!
I had to go to the far end of Wales to learn that the English word ‘saunter’ comes from the French for the Holy Land.
In Mediæval times most would have gone on foot and by sea: to Jerusalem or to Bardsey, the island off the coast where many Welsh saints lived or came to be buried; sauntering, in the modern understanding, implies an expansive, carefree, relaxed gait, a readiness to stop and stare, as the Welsh poet W.H. Davies reminds us, and a readiness to greet other people.
Your holiday for this summer may be at the planning stage, where will you go, who will be in your party, what will you get up to? Wherever you go, make time for sauntering!
And wherever you go today, make time for sauntering! And be ready to greet other people – and their dogs and cats!
More posts from Aberdaron to follow: the parish invite readers to copy this leaflet freely, so we will share it page by page and urge you to make the pilgrimage to Aberdaron, in person as well as by proxy, and possibly travel on to Bardsey, weather permitting.
Laurie Lee1 once wrote of craftsmanship that handmade objects keep us human; the Liturgy enshrines a similar thought when, following an ancient Jewish prayer, it describes the bread and wine as ‘work of human hands’. ‘We are a starved society,’ says Lee, ‘living in the midst of plenty. Our possessions are many, our serenities few.’
Lee would have recognised that feeling of serenity about the Church at Aberdaron, a lightening of the shoulders on crossing the threshold. Put that down to imagination if you will, but I was happy to accept the gift.
As in most churches there were beautiful handmade objects around: the very building itself, the doors, the clear glass windows, banners, icons; and much more. Take a pilgrimage to the edge of Wales to see for yourself.
I was glad to find in the church shop this jug, decorated with fish, made by a local potter, at a far from expensive price. Giving it to my mother, I know it will not become a possession so much as something to be shared – something that will let her share the pilgrimage, for she loves Wales and RS Thomas; her treasure for a while that may be given to a grandchild who comes and admires it.
Janet found there these little fish which now swim beneath our bathroom mirror. ‘Fishers of men’? Bait for memory, reflection, and prayer.
1On Craftsmen, in Village Christmas and other notes on the English year, London, Penguin Classics, 2015, pp 135-6.