There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, munching the gravel
of its beaches. So I have gone
up the salt lane to the building
with the stone altar and the candles
gone out, and kneeled and lifted
my eyes to the furious gargoyle
of the owl that is like a god
gone small and resentful. There
is no body in the stained window
of the sky now. Am I too late?
Were they too late also, those
first pilgrims? He is such a fast
God, always before us and
leaving as we arrive.
There are those here
not given to prayer, whose office
is the blank sea that they say daily.
What they listen to is not
hymns but the slow chemistry of the soil
that turns saints’ bones to dust,
dust to an irritant of the nostril.
There is no time on this island.
The swinging pendulum of the tide
has no clock: the events
are dateless. These people are not
late or soon: they are just
here with only the one question
to ask, which life answers
by being in them. It is I
who ask. Was the pilgrimage
I made to come to my own
self, to learn that in times
like these and for one like me
God will never be plain and
out there, but dark rather and
inexplicable, as though he were in here?
R S Thomas
On finding your joy
The swirl of a Mr Whippy 99 and the inviting sweep of the cliffs contrasted roundly with the dry square pointedness of my primary school classroom.
Padding along cliff paths, humming the tunes a handsome chap from the beach mission played on a glorious accordion, I was aware, even at five, that I learned more readily, lived more fully, when my own imagination was afforded space and acres of time in which to fly free, to be on pilgrimage, to wonder – or as students of Zen have long noted, simply, NOW, to BE.
The roar of cascading waves was for me so much less jarring than the stern calls to attend to multiplication tables, or incomprehensible, ill-experienced ‘comprehension’. The throwing of sticks for deliriously happy dogs – spaniel ears flying in the wind – was altogether more fulfilling than the jolt of the schoolmaster’s cane cracking the old mahogany desk – bouncing inkwells – or the chalky calves of his dark pin-striped three-piece suit.
Rock pools and small fishing boats taught me most about oxygen and marine life, hard work and skill, navigation and perseverance. The ancient church (in my case) at Pistyll, with its straw-strewn floor, spoke to me silently of the music of incomprehension, of all that may not be wholly apprehended, and of the bardic pilgrims who had come and gone before.
Colourful kites were my professors of aerodynamics. The aforementioned accordion my teacher of poetry, soundwaves, wind and joy.
St Hywyn Aberdaron, Lleyn Peninsula – where RS Thomas was parish priest | writinginlight