The Answer by R. S. Thomas

by | Apr 4, 2021 | Reflections

John writes:

Here’s the poem which Duncan asked me to read at the service this morning. It’s a poem which grows on you as you read, and reflect, and I love it.

Duncan mentioned this morning that Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus took place ‘while it was still dark’ (John 20:1) And he used this to symbolize the fact that many of us, after the struggles of the past year know much about twilight, and yet even in the twilight, perhaps especially in the twilight, the risen Jesus self-reveals to us.

The poem will speak to each of you differently according to the ‘lived experience’ you bring to it. For me, the 20th century priest/poet R. S. Thomas (or at least the person whose voice we hear in the poem) is struggling with doubts. Mind alone may glimpse the reality, but is often swamped by deep questions, especially the ‘one which towers immovable before us.’ Which question do you think Thomas has in mind? Is there one question about the validity of Christianity which looms large in your thinking? It’s as though, like sightless people, we are struggling, struggling with the stone of doubt, struggling to find an inherent weakness which will allow us to move it aside.

Perhaps for Thomas, the big question is ‘Does life continue beyond death?’ Is there no different way of thinking which can elucidate this question? What do you think he means by ‘There is an anticipation of it to the point of death?’

And then, personal testimony. A time, when at the end of prolonged prayer, his mind has been awakened to a new perspective, a new way of thinking. There is no need for mental strain. The stone of doubt is rolled away by God’s creative presence. The questions which kept Jesus from breaking into life in the poet’s mind are folded and on one side. (And who folded them? Was it the poet? Or was it the kindly work of God’s hands?) And he knows, with a deep counterintuitive knowing, that love’s body is risen, alive.

Sometimes as post-Enlightenment Christians we have emphasised too much the power of the mind to convey insights about God, and truth as an intellectual construct. But God has other languages – God speaks in symbol and music, in nature (the first Bible), in poetry – and these languages also bear witness, carry truth

But however they come to us, these instants of joyful insight come as a grace, a gift from a living creative God who stands with us in our twilights of the Spirit when we see men only ‘as trees, walking’ and opens our hearts and minds to an incontrovertible knowing.

As Jesus said to another doubting Thomas ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’

Allelujah! Jesus is Risen!
He is Risen indeed!

The Answer

By R. S. Thomas

Not darkness but twilight
in which even the best
of minds must make its way
now. And slowly the questions
occur, vague but formidable
for all that. We pass our hands
over their surface like blind
men, feeling for the mechanism
that will swing them aside. They
yield, but only to re-form
as new problems; and one
does not even do that
but towers immovable
before us.

Is there no way
other than thought of answering
its challenge? There is an anticipation
of it to the point of
dying. There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.