#AdventBookClub Week 1 – Day 2 – ‘In a Country Church’

I have not got much further than the first line of the poem today, because I have found so much in it to ponder. “To one kneeling down no word came”. This is not, I think, synonymous with ‘nothing happened’. Of course, we can’t know exactly what experience R.S. Thomas is drawing on here, but it seems to me quite consistent with his spirituality generally that he may be describing here an experience of God beyond words. “To one kneeling down no word came” may be interpreted as saying that something came, and that something is best described (though undoubtedly inadequately described, as all experiences of God are) as “no word”.

I am reminded of Barbara Brown Taylor’s tiny but profound book “When God Is Silent: Divine Language Beyond Words” in which she beautifully describes the experience of God’s silence as being in itself a powerful and in some sense active force, with the capacity to transform. Both that book and – I would suggest – this poem sit within a long tradition of apophatic spirituality, that is of approaches to the divine which both seek and find God in the space beyond language. That God is known in the coming of “no word” seems entirely consistent with that tradition.

I was interested in Carys Walsh’s observations about how R.S. Thomas’s spirituality, as expressed in his poetry, seems to change over time. That has been my experience too. As the years have passed, I have felt more and more drawn to the God who comes to us in “no word”, in the profundity of silence. In recent years, I have more often experienced God in silence than in speech, and at least as much as an absence as a presence. To say that God is silent, or even that God is absent, is not to say that God is not, but rather to say that God is, in a way that is beyond the way we are or can imagine. Silence is not nothing. God, as the silence at the heart of the universe from whom all sound and speech (and all that is) proceeds is God at God’s most unknowable and yet most intimate.

I recently came across the metaphor (as all our names and words for God are metaphor) that “God is the breathing space”. I like that. God as space. God as breath. God as space for our breath, our life. God as silence and absence which is not nothing, but the centre and foundation of all that is. I wonder if that is what R.S. Thomas caught an inaudible glimpse of, kneeling in a country church, when “no word came”.

And here is another Advent paradox: God who is both Word and “no word”, both waited-for and present, both silent and heard.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading “Frequencies of God: walking through Advent with R.S. Thomas” by Carys Walsh. Join the conversation on Twitter using #AdventBookClub or on Facebook by searching for the group ‘Advent Book Club’.

#AdventBookClub Week 1 – Day 1 – ‘The Coming’

One of the things I love about Advent is the paradox of it – the “journey in time and out of time… a one-time only journey, yet lived each year”, as Carys Walsh puts it in today’s reading. For me, that sense of both/and, now-and-not-yet, captures the yearning that is at the heart of Advent waiting. We are yearning, longing, waiting for a world – a Kingdom – a kin-dom – which is already promised but not yet here. And yet…. and yet at the same time we can catch glimpses of it, if our waiting is attentive, our eyes open, our lamps lit.

That tension is captured by R.S. Thomas in the image of God looking at the world which is both “held in his hand” and yet “far off”. That paradoxical closeness-and-distance is something I experience in my own perception of God, who is both closer to me than my own breath, and at the same time utterly unknowable, unimaginable, except through all our inadequate images, and fleeting glimpses of glory.

I was pleased to see Walsh picking up on the language of apocalypse – in its true sense of revelation or uncovering. And again, there is paradox here. Even as we wait for the great revelation of the apocalypse, there are moments of uncovering, moments of stripping away the facade of the world to see the background of God’s eternal presence within, which happen all the time. I wonder where, in this year which has felt at times apocalyptic in the colloquial sense, we have noticed those little moments of apocalypse, of revelation, of uncovering the presence of God already in our midst, even as we wait?

Thomas, in this extraordinary image of the river as “a bright serpent… radiant with slime” reveals something which I suspect many of us know to be true: that slime and radiance are not strangers to each other. Or, put another way, God’s presence and purpose in the world are not at all at odds with the mucky, messy, chaotic realities of our present life. Indeed, it may be in the very slime, the distasteful parts of life we would prefer to ignore or avoid, that our waiting eyes catch a glimmer of the radiant glory of God which is both coming, and already here.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading “Frequencies of God: walking through Advent with R.S. Thomas” by Carys Walsh. Join the conversation on Twitter using #AdventBookClub or on Facebook by searching for the group ‘Advent Book Club’.