I have a very favourite poet. R.S. Thomas – that welsh poet-priest of the last century. He writes achingly about the Welsh hills that formed him, he speaks of his artist wife’s hands in such a way that you know he has spent long gazing at them, and again and again he gives us words which unveil the beauty of God. He is never twee. He is often unsettling, he writes of his doubts – and yet again and again he leaves the reader with that sense of God, caught through the corner of an eye, glimpsed in the shadows.
I love RS Thomas. I have loved him a long time. I know his picture well, unkempt hair, duffle coat, bicycle – a man I would like I was sure and so finally I treated my self to his biography this Christmas and am now halfway through. It has been, one might say, a revelation, an unveiling, an epiphany.
R S Thomas, it would seem, written I add by someone who has much respect for him – was a cantankerous, rude, fiery, obstinate, contrary man. He hated his mother, he neglected his son, he ignored his wife’s talent for art. He was teased by the welsh-speaking boys at school, so he mastered an false Oxford-English accent to stir them more, yet, if you were English, and stopped your car by him to ask directions, suddenly this perfector of the English language would pretend not to understand – he’d say in his best Welsh accent (of which I won’t attempt) – sorry speak no English. As a priest his parish letters would swing between the evil of the English and the laziness of the Welsh in attending church. His visits would often include an admonishment for not coming to church – and if you made the effort to go to church, well the memories are of his sermons telling you off for not going to church more. Church attendance, in his parishes, unsurprisingly, was poor.
There are many stories of his rudeness and his hatred for visitors. When an eminent professor drove many miles to give RS Thomas an award, Thomas closed the door in his face – I’m not receiving visitors to day, was his response.
And so this man of exquisite language and sensitive observance has been revealed to be something I was not quite expecting – and whereas there is still time, perhaps, in the book for his character to be redeemed, there is also the chance that it won’t. So I am struggling a bit to reconcile the poetry I love, the poetry that has been a gift in my life, with the image of this hell-fire, cantankerous misery of a priest.
Today, on this feast of Epiphany, we remember an unveiling of a different sort; a revelation as we remember the maji discovering something unexpected – seeing, in a way they had not imagined – the manifestation of God in human flesh.
And as we travel though this season of Epiphany, though the whole of this month, we will come across other ways in which God is seen, unveiled – next Sunday we will hear the story of the baptism of Christ – as the heaven splits open and God says ‘this is my Son’, after that will be the wedding at Cana where Christ’s first miracle was performed and then we get to Candlemas – where we will hear the words of revelation from Simeon and Anna – who have waited a long time to see God in flesh unveiled before their eyes.
Of course this unveiling, this revealing, was a more joyful experience than my surprise of discovering such a grumpy Welsh poet – but it got me thinking a bit about the unveiling of others, of ourselves, of God in life – how much can we really know, and how much will always remain hidden.
R S Thomas, has an undoubted, beautiful gift. It has on numerous occasions stopped me in my tracks and revealed God in many ways – and yet, perhaps, had I met the man, maybe I would not have given his poetry a chance. Yet, of course we are all multi-layered creatures – and the sensitivity shown in his writing, must be as much a part of him as the brash and unwelcoming persona – maybe even more-so.
At Epiphany we think of the revelation of God made flesh on a number of occasions – but actually what we also discover is the revelation of God’s grace in surprising people. The Maji, St Matthew tells us of, were of course foreigners, of the wrong religion and a suspect profession, not people approved of in scripture or expected to be given this revelation from God. They also come with surprising gifts. And I guess it might make us reflect a bit, on the people we would least expect God to gift, or reveal himself through. Those people we find difficult, those people we think should not be included, those people we don’t think good enough, those we might think are not respectable – those people we think we have summed up.
One of the curiosities of course about today, is our nativity figures with those three wise men, three kings – which of course isn’t what the gospel tells us, we simply know there are three gifts that came with these travellers. We don’t know they were kings, we don’t know there were three, we don’t know they were all men. But maybe we can see in the collective decision of human tradition to form them as three kings, the nature in humans to want to neaten things up, to have things precisely parcelled and identified, to think we know who people are, rather than be left with gaps and mystery.
But all people have gaps and mystery. And the danger of labelling a person as no good, or not to be listened to is to risk missing the unveiling of God that might well be made manifest through them. I wonder if there are people with great things to give, that maybe you or I refuse to accept because we have decided we know they are not our, or God’s type of person.
But of course as well as others being surprising objects of God’s gifting and presence, we too are only fully known to God, not even to ourselves, maybe especially even ourselves.
In RS Thomas’s poem – Mass for Hard Times, he writes an alternative confession Kyrie – and one of the stanza’s he produces say
Because we will protect ourselves
from ourselves to the point
of destroying ourselves, Lord have mercy.
It is a really deep-seated understanding, of the human condition, in all of us, to not deal with truly who we are. Perhaps because of feelings of not being good enough, or perhaps because of needing to justify actions or words that cannot truly be justified. But even to ourselves there is, identifies Thomas, a mystery and a gap – but therefore also a place where surprising gifts and revelations of God may be made manifest.
But lastly, in Epiphany, although we celebrate the unveiling of God, of the divine, in flesh – we also, through that, strangely come to be more aware of the mystery of God, of his hiddenness. The stories of the revelation of Christ as the Messiah have scant witnesses. The shepherds, the maji, the gathered perhaps at his baptism, the servants at a local wedding, two elderly people in the temple. God comes revealed in glimpses, in bursts, in word, in water and wine – but not in a way that is pin-downable, or seen by all, or understood fully by anyone.
And that is still true today. God is still mystery, there is a vast gap between our understanding of him and his true being.
And this is what RS Thomas knew best. This is where his poetry really comes alive. This unpopular, unfriendly, unruly priest showed deep within his verse a sense of God revealed largely in fleeting moments: of prayers thrown into nothingness, of the empty air of a church, of turning because of sensing something only to find nothing. And yet,
and yet, in each of these he glimpses something through clasped hands in prayer, in the light from the window as he kneels at the altar, in the impulse to turn even though the turning still left doubt.
What Thomas shows is an almost painful, yet hope-filled experience of living with emptiness and mystery but with enough unveilings, small yet piercing epiphanies, to touch his sorry soul and know God’s presence.
Perhaps that is all any of us can ask for: that the God who knows us fully, and yet in this life remains so often to us as mystery, will gift us with those tiny, tiny epiphanies, perhaps when we are least expecting it, and that we too will glimpse his presence.