I often call there. There are no poems in it for me. But as a gesture of independence of the speeding traffic I am a part of, I stop the car, turn down the narrow path to the river and enter the church with its clear reflection beside it. There are few services now; the screen has nothing to hide. Face to face with no intermediary between me and God, and only the water’s quiet insistence on a time older than man, I keep my eyes open and am not dazzled, so delicately does the light enter my soul from the serene presence that waits for me till I come next.
The echo of “Little Gidding” is loud for me here. We are in familiar territory, oddly for a poem which is about unfrequented territory. You will recall that Eliot writes:
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all.Little Gidding
The car, that symbol of modern hustle and bustle, taking one from A to B by the easiest route, the very image of the purposeful, the very opposite of the leisurely ramble whose purpose lies only in itself, is stopped and the poet finds at the end of the “narrow path” a shell, that “husk of meaning” mentioned by Eliot.
Familiar territory is the seeming absence of God and the importance of silence and waiting – we have here another of those little epiphanies we have seen so often with Thomas. We also have, despite appearances, that quiet insistence on place and on the church itself.
I have been down that “narrow lane” and seen the church, with its magnificent rood-screen (illustrated above). It is entirely unexpected. How, in Wales of all places, it survived the iconoclasm of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries I do not know, but assume a local landowner’s influence. But survive it does. This Western equivalent of the iconostasis, protecting the most holy place from profane eyes, now has “nothing to hide”. There is here no epiphany of the sort gifted in “The Bright Field”, but, paradoxially, without an intermediary the poet can have direct access – the church itself was that place, waiting for him, as it will always wait for him – and as it waits for us.
The absence is the absence of us, not of God. In our busy world it is we who make no time to be with God. Stop the car. The “narrow path” leads to salvation, we are told in Scripture; here it leads to a soul-comforting moment. Churches are special places. Their walls soaked in generation after generation of prayer, where God is present in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine, where his love has been poured out for us. So, as we journey, let us once more remember to stop our equivalent of the car, and go down that narrow path of prayer and contemplation – he waits in the silence; can we bear the silence?
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!