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’.