In Church

Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. 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.

Thomas upends our expectations – as so often. We might say “we go to church to meet God” – Thomas asks himself “Is this where God hides from my searching?” There is a brooding quality to this as I read it, and the negatives seem to outweigh the positives. I will return to that word “seem” as it is required, for me, to do a good deal of heavy lifting.

The church is described as the “hard ribs of a body that our prayers have failed to animate”, and despite what we are told in John’s Gospel, the darkness of the Shadows “advances” to take possession of places held but temporarily by the light. Again, we seem to see an inversion of what we might expect, not least from a priest. It is as though we are being told that “the darkness prevails against the light.”

The church is a place given over to shadows and bats, there is no other sound. For the poet the pews have about them an “uneasiness”, and even the Cross, that great symbol of our hope, is “untenanted.” Here, in a poem written eleven years later than our last one, there is no “winter tree golden with fruit.”

Back to that word I used earlier – “seem”. It would be easy to read this as a poem about hope disappointed, a disillusioned faith come to naught in a church empty of those things which ought to give it meaning; maybe even of what once gave it meaning to the priest. But before giving way to this easiest of readings we need to attend to what the poet means when he says he trys to “analyse” the “quality of its silences”?

The French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, wrote that:

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,”

Even before the era of the Internet and the smart phone, mankind hated sitting still and disliked silence. In a recent study “when 42 people got to choose between sitting doing nothing and giving themselves electric shocks, two-thirds of men and a quarter of women chose the latter”. Thomas, by contrast, embraces the silence and, as monks and nuns have done down the ages, engages with it. How often to do we do that? (Do not ask my other half this question!).

Absence and silence are not the same. What happens if we seek to engage with the silence?

There is a sound in the silence – a man breathing. The Hebrew noun ruach can refer to “breath” and we are told God breathed life into Adam, and that Scripture is “God breathed” – breath matters, it is the very source of life. Mother Carys, in her chapter (pp. 12-13) suggests that there is an identification here between the poet and the church – the verb “animate” may, she suggests, refer to the poet and “his own struggle for animation in prayer.” That other great Welsh poet and priest, George Herbert, called prayer:

God’s breath in man returning to his birth The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,

and here, in the very act of breathing, the man in the church recalls to us the fact that the Hebrew for “Holy Spirit” is ruach ha-kodesh. In silent waiting, in breathing slowly and purposefully, we can enter that great silence about which Thomas Merton wrote so movingly. All Christian mystics have attached huge importance to silence and to our surrendering ourselves to it.

The Cross is “untenanted” – like the tomb – “He is not here”. As we journey and embrace the silence, then perhaps, like Mary Magdalen on that first Easter Sunday, we shall encounter Him in the breaking of the bread? That depends how we embrace the silence.

I am grateful to C451 for discussing this with me and for his help.