As we have reached the end of “Frequencies of God” and the Advent Book Club, I want to see if having a regular Sunday feature on a particular poem might become part of the blog, and so, having spent so long with R.S. Thomas, I thought I’d continue with one of his most challenging poems. As ever, if anyone has thoughts, I’d appreciate them.
And God said, I will build a church here And cause this people to worship me, And afflict them with poverty and sickness In return for centuries of hard work And patience. And its walls shall be hard as Their hearts, and its windows let in the light Grudgingly, as their minds do, and the priest’s words be drowned By the wind’s caterwauling. All this I will do, Said God, and watch the bitterness in their eyes Grow, and their lips suppurate with Their prayers. And their women shall bring forth On my altar, and I will choose the best Of them to be thrown back into the sea. And that was only on one island.
Thomas had a “thing” about islands, living, as he did for many years in sight of one. They have long been places where mankind has gone to find God. My picture is one of the most famous places of pilgrimage in the UK, Lindisfarne, in Northumbria, forever associated with St Cuthbert, one of the greatest of Anglo-Saxon saints, whose body was taken from the island after the Viking raids and which, eventually, ended up at Durham Cathedral, where it lies to this day. He is the patron saint of the north-east.
This is one of Thomas’s most challenging poems, and much as I sought to find an easier one to begin this Sunday series, this one kept returning to me, almost like one of those persistent atheists one comes across on the Web who wants to know “how can you believe in a God who lets things like the pandemic happen?” Just because it’s the most frequently asked question does not mean that it is easy to answer, though easy answers are available.
Often, in the Psalms, there is a sense that after suffering, God’s faithful will be rewarded – Zion will be restored, and as with Job, after suffering all things will be restored. Here, Thomas confronts us with a picture as hard and bleak as the island headland. What did St Cuthbert’s successors “get” for their faithfulness? Viking raids which plundered the monastery, death. exile and wandering – “poverty and sickness”.
But there is more here to be uncovered. As so often, it is in the paradox. On the surface the men and women on the island are innocent victims, their belief in God yielding bitter fruit, of any, and yet, we are told that their “hearts” and as “hard” as the stone walls of their churches, and their “minds” let in as little light as the narrow windows characteristic of Anglo-Saxon churches. The fruit of their worship is bitter – and the image of prayers “suppurating” on the lips is one of the harshest he ever uses. There is a sense, throughout, of human sacrifice, with God almost as an egomaniac punishing those who worship him for their failures.
This poem dates from the 1970s and we can see in it evidence of the journey what was to lead him in an apophatic direction. But here, there is indeed “naught for your comfort.”