There is an island there is no going to but in a small boat, the way the saints went, travelling the gallery of the frightened faces of the long-drowned, munching the gravel of its beaches. So I have gone up the salt lane to the building with the stone altar, and the candles gone out, and kneeled and lifted my eyes to the furious gargoyle of the owl that is like a god gone small and resentful. There is no body in the stained window of the sky now. Am I too late? Were they too late also, those first pilgrims? He is such a fast God, always before us, and leaving as we arrive. There are those here not given to prayer, whose office is the blank sea that they say daily. What they listen to is not hymns, but the slow chemistry of the soil, that turns saints’ bones into dust, dust to an irritant of the nostril. There is no time on this island. The swinging pendulum of the tide has no clock; the events are dateless. These people are not late or soon; they are just here, with only the one question to ask, which life answers by being in them. It is I who ask. Was the pilgrimage I made to come to my own self, to learn that, in times like these, and for one like me, God will never be plain and out there, but dark rather, and inexplicable, as though he were in here?
I remember the first time I went to Bardsey island as a hopelessly romantic teenager. Romantic, I hasten to add, in the sense of being given to fanciful imaginings. As we boated out there I felt something of what I recognised Thomas had felt when I first came across this poem at college. I imagined myself back in time, when what are now ruins were buildings in their prime. I felt one with the countless pilgrims who had been there before me. I have been up that “salt lane” and felt the gravel crunch under my feet. Thomas’ words conjure up well the sheer physicality of a place built for the spiritual. We are in territory now familiar to us on this journey – the continuum between the physical and the spiritual. Nothing expresses that better than a place of pilgrimage. I have felt the same at Walsingham.
Familiar, too, by now to us, is the sense of the absence of God where we might expect to find him, and his presence where we often do not look because we press on to that we conceive to be our destination. In that place, where you come, as Eliot says in Little Gidding, to kneel in prayer, where prayer saturates the walls, you may find what you seek, but Thomas knows about absence. We come expectantly; we find not what we were looking for, but nothing save the beauty of the ruins and of the island.
There is an almost brutal honesty as the poem comes to its close. Have I travelled all that way to come to myself? And worse, to learn that for “one like me
It is looking inwards, it is back to that silent waiting we read so much about in week 1, back too to the hope of those small epiphanies if we wait in silence. But we know, each of us, how hard that is. It is so easy to despair. And yet and yet, the ruins are there, the altar, the cross, and I am not a solitary, no hermit I, but rather part of a church, and it is easy for Romantics to crave the wild and the unusual and to miss the everyday. At that altar for years, monks and pilgrims encountered God in the breaking of the bread – as we can.
If the hardships of lockdown have done nothing else, they have emphasised the importance of fellowship and the Eucharist. There God is.
There is an #adventbookclub using “Frequencies of God” by Carys Walsh and you can support the publisher by buying it here: https://canterburypress.hymnsam.co.uk/books/9781786220882/frequencies-of-god. We’ll be running this club on Twitter and Facebook, and you are welcome to join in with thoughts and comments. Other folk doing this are https://grahart.wordpress.com/ and https://becausegodislove.wordpress.com/ so please pop over and read their thoughts too!