Tag Archives: R.S. Thomas

August 13: H is for Holywell.

winifride.plowden (389x640)

There are Holy Wells all over Britain, most more than half forgotten. But people still leave little offerings and prayers tied to branches or stuffed between stones at St Nôn’s Well in Pembrokeshire. Even in Rome, coins are tossed into fountains to bring people back to the eternal city. Are they trying to force the hand of God or some lesser local deity?

R.S. Thomas, the Welsh priest-poet, had a holy well in his parish where he would pray. Whom did he and other visitors pray to there?

‘ where the coins lie, the tarnished offerings

of the people to the pure spirit

that lives there, that has lived there

always, giving itself up

to the thirsty, withholding

itself from the superstition

of others, who ask for more.’[1]

Holy wells challenge me, if no-one else! Whatever lies behind the legend of St Winifred’s well springing to life where her severed head fell, water has bubbled up here, people have prayed here, people have been cured and have left their crutches behind.

Is it superstition to ‘ask for more’? And is seeking bodily healing asking for more – or less – than a draught of ‘the pure spirit that has lived there always? More than likely people came to the holy well before the Welsh saints gathered around it.

Certainly water was a powerful sign to people before the coming of city plumbing and clean water on sale in plastic bottles. Here is Philip in the earliest days of the Church, riding in a chariot with a potential convert (Acts 8):

Philip, opening his mouth, and beginning at this scripture, preached unto him Jesus. And as they went on their way, they came to a certain water; and the eunuch said: See, here is water: what doth hinder me from being baptized?

 And Philip said: If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest. And he answering, said: I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stand still; and they went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch: and he baptized him.

May we never take water, or the Spirit, for granted!

Find out how to share the benefits of reliably clean water here: http://www.wateraid.org/uk

Winifred and her Holywell depicted in a window at her church in Plowden, Shropshire.

 

 MMB.

[1]R.S. Thomas, ‘Ffynnon Fair’ in R.S. Thomas, ‘Collected Poems, 1945 – 1990’, London, Orion, 2000.

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November 28: Jacopone da Todi 2. Attending to Faces in a Dark Mirror

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When we aim to understand ourselves in a deeper way, and spend time focussing inwards, the dark impressions which we recover at first are not reassuring. We may experience our soul’s troubled waters as a shadowy pool. What light we find there feels moody, insubstantial and even riddled with foreboding.

When St. Paul said ‘we see as through a glass darkly’, (1 Corinthians 13:12) it was surely the kind of seeing we attempt to enjoy as the character and creative traits of others. But at first we are not skilled in reading these correctly. We meet the mistrust and suspicion of others, or display to them more of our own suspicion than we would have wished them to notice. Jacopone tackles this clash well.

“Draw yourself up to your full stature

And thunder me a sermon for the mote in my eye.

You scorn me, oblivious of the beam in your own.

Tend your own wounds, so wide and deep they cannot heal.

 

“Students of Scripture, you want to preach,

And point out the darkness in my life, ignoring yours;

You make a show of your exterior, and have little love

For anyone who would search your heart instead.”

We sometimes wonder, when we lock horns, who will back down first? But as Christians we each have reserves of humility in our shady, glassy inner pool. We have to trust these and plunge into them as we would plunge into God, for the sake of a genuine friendship.

 

Chris D.

October 2016.

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October 22: Their cross is yours

crososososo1450655040

You have made an altar

out of the deck of the lost

trawler whose spars

are your cross.

In Great Waters,[1].

It is the dead refugees in the Mediterranean that these lines bring to mind, long after R.S. Thomas wrote them.

We see God making an altar, not Abel, Abraham, or Moses. John Paul II wrote of the ‘altar of the world’ on which sacrifice is unceasingly offered. Here, where the boat foundered on the rocks, is Calvary, not just for the crew and their beloved, but for Christ. He accepts the tarnished offerings of their lives, (tarnished because all are sinners): their cross is made to fit him, their brother.

A cross to remember Christ by need not be golden (see Wednesday’s post): this report and photo come from Independent Catholic News, ICN, 20.12.15 . Thanks to the editor, Jo Siedlecka.

A stark cross, made from the wreckage of a boat that that sank in the Mediterranean in 2013, drowning hundreds of refugees, was the final acquisition made by the British Museum on Neil MacGregor’s last day as Director, on Friday, 18 December 2015.

The cross was made by Mr Francesco Tuccio, a carpenter who lives and works on the island. It is made from parts of a boat that sank near Lampedusa on 3 October 2013, carrying refugees. 500 people were on board when the overcrowded boat caught fire, capsized and sank. Only 151 survived. Some of the survivors were Eritrean Christians, fleeing persecution in their home country. Mr Tuccio met some of them in his church of San Gerlando and frustrated by his inability to make any difference to their plight, he went and collected some of the timber from the wreckage and made each of them a cross to reflect their salvation and as a symbol of hope for the future.

On request Mr Tuccio also made a cross which was carried by Pope Francis at the memorial service for the survivors. The British Museum heard about the crosses and contacted Mr Tuccio to see if it could acquire one for the collection. Mr Tuccio made and donated this cross to the collection as a symbol of the suffering and hope of our times. When the museum thanked him he wrote: “it is I who should thank you for drawing attention to the burden symbolized by this small piece of wood.”

In a statement, the Museum said: “It is essential that the Museum continues to collect objects that reflect contemporary culture in order to ensure the collection remains dynamic and reflects the world as it is. The Lampedusa disaster was one of the first examples of the terrible tragedies that have befallen refugees/migrants as they seek to cross from Africa into Europe. The cross allows the Museum to represent these events in a physical object so that in 10, 50,100 years’ time this latest migration can be reflected in a collection which tells the stories of multiple migrations across millennia.

Neil MacGregor said: “This simple yet moving object is a poignant gift to the collection. Mr Tuccio’s generosity will allow all visitors to the Museum to reflect on this significant moment in the history of Europe, a great migration which may change the way we understand our continent. In my time at the Museum we have acquired many wonderful objects, from the grand to the humble, but all have sought to shine a light on the needs and hopes that all human beings share. All have enabled the Museum to fulfil the purpose for which it was set up: to be a Museum of the world and for the world, now and well into the future.”

The Cross given to Pope Francis can be seen in this video .

[1] SP, p 128

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October 21: Emptiness without him

. . .  What resource have I

other than the emptiness without him of my whole

being, a vacuum he may not abhor?[1]

R.S. Thomas makes us aware of the winter of the soul, waiting for one flower to open within. Is this vacuum a sign that we are doing something wrong? Wrong question: doing is secondary to listening, to loving; these will point us to the right course of action.

We have no resources to offer God, other than emptiness: a quiet place with room for him.

In her personal life, the poet Christina Rossetti knew bleak and empty heartache; her most well-known hymn is more than sentimentality:

 In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, 
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; 
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, 
in the bleak midwinter, long ago. 

Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; 
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign. 
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed 
the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ. 

Angels and archangels may have gathered there, 
cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; 
but his mother only, in her maiden bliss, 
worshipped the beloved with a kiss. 

What can I give him, poor as I am? 
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; 
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; 
yet what I can I give him: give my heart. 

 

[1] The Absence, SP p133

 

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October 20: Bitter Fruit, Bitter Seed

blackthorn

Blackthorn opens at the end of Winter, but never one flower alone, always a constellation of Hope. 

… waiting, as at the end

of a hard winter

for one flower to open

on the mind’s tree of thorns.[1]

I could not shake off yesterday’s image of a fleshly body, hanging on that tree. Waiting for a flower to open in my mind, I recalled this tree of thorns, the lynchings of black men in America: Strange Fruit:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Abel Meeropol

Strange Fruit

While the song was written in response to lynchings in America, we are more than aware that the sudden smell of burning flesh could appear on any breeze, anywhere in the world.

Bitter crops come from bitter seeds. Let us pray for the insight to see how to relieve whatever bitterness we encounter in our neighbours, and the courage to reach out to do so.

MMB.

 

 

[1] Waiting SP p137

 

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19 October: A Physical Body, A Physical Cross

 

Xtlily

Godstone, Isle of Wight

R.S. Thomas knew a quiet place to pray, ‘In a country church’.[1]

He … saw love in a dark crown

Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree

Golden with fruit of a man’s body.

I was walking through an apple orchard the day I composed this post, and enjoyed a golden apple left behind by the pickers. In brilliant sunshine it was warm to the taste. Come the winter, that orchard will be muddy and less inviting; the trees bare of all but small and deformed fruit, waiting for the birds to devour them, peck by peck.

Many church crucifixes are golden, from thinking that precious metal should be used to represent the precious death of the Lord. Perhaps R.S. Thomas has some thought of the love of the artists who made the crucifix or glass in his country church, but principally it is the body of the Lord he contemplates.

The physicality of that body came home to me as I bit into that warm golden apple. A man’s warm body growing cold on a winter tree, but a loving heart, crowned with flaming thorns, never growing cold.

The scandal of the cross is that it happened – and yet we adopt this as our Christian symbol, rather than an empty tomb, say, or the star of Bethlehem. Thereby we proclaim ourselves as sinners: the cross is not a good luck charm, it is a true story.

Let us pray that we do not ignore the fruit that is ripe for the picking on that winter (or spring, summer, autumn) tree; may we taste and see that the Lord is good. (Psalm 34:8)

MMB

[1] SP p29

 

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October 17: Tarnished Offerings

samaritanwoman

Mosaic, Baptistery, Basilica of St Maurice, Valais, Switzerland 

R.S. Thomas had a holy well in his parish, sacred to Mary:

‘… Ignoring my image I peer down

to the quiet roots of it, where

the coins lie, the tarnished offerings

of the people to the pure spirit

that lives there, that has lived there

always, giving itself up

to the thirsty, withholding

itself from the superstition

of others, who ask for more.’[1]

 

The Samaritan woman asked Jesus: ‘Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come hither to draw.’ (John 4:13–15) Like her, those visiting Mary’s Well may have mixed or inarticulate motives: thanks for the water, but ‘asking for more’? Possibly healing, as at Saint Winifride’s Holywell or fertility?  At Saint Nôn’s Well in Pembrokeshire, we heard a party of pagans descending to hold a service in the water; one removing some of her clothing as we walked by. It did not seem opportune to ask whom they were worshipping.

In Bath Romans cast money into the water as an offering to Minerva. This ceased after the pious Emperor Theodosius I forbade offerings to pagan gods. But today’s tarnished offerings? Thomas says the ‘pure spirit that has lived there always’ accepts them.

Jesus led the conversation on from water, telling the woman: ‘God is a spirit; and they that adore him, must adore him in spirit and in truth.’ (John 4:24)  R.S. Thomas invites us to plunge beyond introspection to offer thanks to a loving Creator rather than trying to force the hand of a coin-in-the-slot robot deity.

MMB.

 

 

[1]R.S. Thomas, ‘Ffynnon Fair’ in R.S. Thomas, ‘Collected Poems, 1945 – 1990’, London, Orion, 2000.

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October 16: He would have smiled

judas

I remember an Anglican priest shaken by a parishioner’s claim never to have suffered, wondering what life this man had lived. R.S. Thomas was an Anglican priest himself of course, and met such men from time to time, perhaps with a wry shake of the head.

The title of this poem, ‘The Fisherman’, evokes images of Peter the Apostle, embarrassing in his stuttering faith. Instead we meet a man who takes a fish or glass of water ‘as though they owed it to him’. How to evangelise such a one?

I could have told of the living water

That springs pure.

He would have smiled then,

Dancing his speckled fly in the shallows,

Not understanding.

Perhaps this man cannot see the depths of other people and cares only for what he can get from them, dancing the lure of his charm, not realising that he does not understand, not seeing how he hurts them. He would always have smiled. That lesson he’d learnt well.

Judas must have had charm, but he could not understand the loving gift of Mary, anointing the feet of Jesus with precious ointment and wiping them with her hair – even though Jesus had raised her dead brother to life! (John 12) After the death of Jesus, Judas saw clearly his petty betrayals – like stealing from the common purse – as well as the one they led up to. He could not cope with this view of himself.

There is a tradition that when he ‘descended into Hell’, Jesus took the opportunity to save Judas, as expressed by this carving at Strasbourg cathedral, where the Lamb of God is untying him from the tree of suicide.

How to evangelise such a one?

MMB

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October 16: A week with R.S. Thomas

It has been refreshing to read the poetry of Sister Johanna (our SJC), following the offerings of her colleague at Minster Sister Mary Stephen (SMS). They have sent me back to the sources. Tempting as Dylan might be, I turned instead to his namesake, R.S. Thomas, for this week’s reflections.

R.S. was a Welsh Anglican priest who wrote in English, often challenging, often reflecting light into dark corners. I hope you will turn to his work after reading these extracts and my reflections on them.

MMB.

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