In a Country Church To one kneeling down no word came, Only the wind' s song, saddening the lips Of the grave saints, rigid in glass; Or the dry whisper of unseen wings, Bats not angels, in the high roof. Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long And saw love in a dark crown Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree Golden with fruit of a man's body.
As Mother Carys comments, this poem is esepcially suitable for Advent, because although this season is not as penitential as Lent because ‘we look forward to the presence of God with us in the incarnation’, it does not ‘preclude penitence and apprehension.’ (p.7).
The first verse resonates with me in a number of ways. In the first place it brings forth to my mind Eliot’s Little Gidding where he reminds us of the purpose of the Church:
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And here the one praying does so in silence. It does not seem at first sight as though this is the rich silence of Adoration. There is a barren quality to it – signified by the ‘wind’s song’ and the ‘dry whisper’ of the bat’s wings – no angels in glory here.
This is the second sense in which this resonates with me. I have been into many country churches, some of which can seem desolate, as though the Spirit is gone from them. I have knelt in prayer and felt much as Thomas describes.
But that is where ‘waiting’ matters. We wait in faith, we pray in faith. Being in a place hallowed by prayer I always feel as though I am with others, their prayers soaked into the walls, and if I stay kneeling long enough, and wait, then yes, there can come what Eliot describes here:
And Thomas knew this. He sees ‘love in a dark crown of thorns blazing.’ The Cross, which is so often brought to our minds in the readings for Advent, is suddenly and startlingly not the barren and terrible desolation it seemed that first Good Friday, no, it is ‘golden” and fruitful.
This type of waiting is described by Mother Carys in a way which penetrates to the heart of Advent:
This is a kind of waiting that does not rush us towards an end, or offer us a short cut, it is not a kind of waiting that will focus on what will come at its end. It is a crafted kind of waiting; a season of responding, attentive surrender and rootedness …
If we wait for what we expect we may, if we are fortunate, get it, but then what we may expect from God is bounded by our human frailties and limitations. Better for us to wait in humility, love and prayer, responding to the love we saw in The Coming and knowing two things only, that God loves us, and that what we will get at the end of it is beyond any imaginings or hopes of ours. As Eliot puts it:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.