Feel closer to that eternal source of loving
Philip Morgan, 14 June 2015
Ezekiel 17: 22–24; Mark 4: 26–34
I’m grateful to Peter for the invitation to speak to you again about the God who loves us more than we can imagine. I’m going to explore a contemporary parable – a poem by R. S. Thomas, priest for many years on the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales. You may have read the article by Angus Watson in the magazine about his poem ‘The Moor’. It’s becoming ‘R. S Thomas month’ in the parish. Here is ‘Llananno’.
I often call there.
There are no poems in it
for me. But as gesture
of independence of the speeding
traffic I am a part
of, I stop the car,
turn down the narrow path
to the river, and enter
the church with its clear reflection
There are few services
now; the screen has nothing
to hide. Face to face
with no intermediary
between me and God, and only the water’s
quiet insistence on a time
older than man. I keep my eyes
open and am not dazzled,
so delicately does the light enter
my soul from the serene presence
that waits for me till I come next.
Feel the way Thomas slows down from the speeding traffic; his independence. ‘I stop the car, turn down the narrow path’. Not a bad way to begin praying ourselves. We’re part of a fast-moving world, iPhone in hand or at the ear, fixing things, switching on, collecting, dropping off. We need now to stop the car – whatever the car stands for this morning – and turn down the narrow path, taking a different direction from the traffic-filled road – whatever the road stands for this morning.
It’s our bodies that take us on this path. Even if we’re just moving from one chair to another to think about God, it’s our bodies we move to get there. Feel the physicality of going along the path, feet on the ground, feet on the floor, giving us support. We are creatures of physicality and gravity. We have only to remember images of the earthquake in Nepal to know what an appalling difference there is between being on secure ground and feeling the earth moving under our feet. When our foundations shake, the old securities prove precarious; and that can happen in our lives too. We need to be able to do something about it.
We come to the bottom of the hill, to the river. Water, where life began in the great deeps, when the heat bursting into the ocean from an earthquake below the earth’s crust into the ocean combined with the water to make life possible. 60–70% of each of us is water. We know how quickly we are affected if we don’t drink it, and what a fatal enemy dehydration can be. We’re getting close to our roots, Thomas says, when we’re near this element – older by far than the human race. Closer still, in another more symbolic way, when we ‘enter the church with its clear reflection beside it’. This is a building where we may discover or re-discover the presence of God, but God’s presence is not confined to stone and mortar. God’s presence is everywhere. As Thomas points out in ‘The Moor’: ‘It was like a church to me’. The point of whatever serves as a church is to encourage us to find how God’s Spirit lives in us; that is our security, body, mind and spirit as we are.
The point of whatever serves as a church is to encourage us to find how God’s Spirit lives in us.
We’re going down, the poem says, into a part of us that is always part of us, but we need reminding about it. Only the mystics have easy recall of this part. The rest of us have to make a kind of intention to get there. R. S. Thomas is using his visits to Llananno to give us an example of how it can be. We can get there by going into another room in our house, or from one part of the garden to another, or from one mindset to another. But we must be practical, and choose the time. I do remember, many years ago, reading about a bishop who said he meditated when driving round his diocese; I’m so glad I didn’t meet him on the road. Don’t do it that way.
So we enter the church, creatures of water and the carbon of burnt-out stars. Our bodies take us there. Probably best to sit, or stand. Be comfortable to pray. Head upright on shoulders, allowing chest, stomach and, for those of us of a certain age, bladder to be their natural shape, lungs able to expand, so we can breathe deeply and easily, blood, bone and muscle all doing their natural tasks. For these reasons, what is irreverently called in the trade the ‘shampoo position’ is not the best, although, when things get bad, I do lean forward with my head in my hands and rock to and fro a bit to release the tension.
Rest and relax. ‘Face to face with no intermediary between me and God, and only the water’s quiet insistence on a time older than man. I keep my eyes open.’ But does it happen to us? We’ve benefited physically from our walk from the car, from settling down somehow, but our minds – ah! our minds – may still be in the traffic, our own particular traffic. That’s us; we have a lot to think about. God won’t hold that against us. We need more time to calm down. Perhaps a familiar phrase comes to mind: ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’, ‘Help me, Lord’, or a phrase from a hymn. Useful start, but there are many useful starts. Neither Thomas nor I is making prescriptions here.
Even our own particular traffic may still be travelling through us, from practical things to be settled to huge anxieties. A wise person suggests this: ‘Resist no thought; retain no thought; react to no thought; return to where you started’. Don’t use effort to resist, or to ban the thought. Effort needs energy, and that energy is needed for other tasks in this inner space. Then put the thought away. There’s a much greater ‘something’ ahead. Having discarded the thought, there’s no need to react to it. Spare judging yourself. We need to be patient with ourselves. Then back to where you were with that phrase you thought of, or looking at something in the church or room or outside. The hope now is, as Thomas puts it in ‘The Moor’, ‘stillness of the heart’s passions … and the mind’s cession of its kingdom’.
‘I often call there.’ Familiarity is a help with this process. Calling there helps us know a bit more about where we’ve come from and where we’re going, know a bit more about how we look at things, what gets us going in the right way – or, just as important, the wrong way.
So, ‘I keep my eyes/open and am not dazzled,/so delicately does the light enter/my soul from the serene presence/that waits for me till I come next’. Wonderful fall of words here, as we come to the end of the poem. The syllables are drawn out; it sounds quite different from the outer and inner brisk clatter of arrival. ‘Not dazzled’, ‘so delicately’, ‘serene presence’. Thomas is making clear the blessing of the experience, but remember,
‘I often call there’.
Just keep on calling there, if only for a short time when time presses. God knows us; in Jesus, God made it clear God wants us to know him. Waiting, in the inner space of the mind, listening as openly as possible and sometimes hearing, sometimes feeling the slight nudge. These are ways of waiting in hope for our futures. So we come to feel closer to that eternal source of loving, from which we are really never separated. From that source our energies emerge, deepening our faith and helping others to deepen theirs, rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. May we often call there.