Christmas, a season for poets
December 21, 2021
Christmas is a season for poets and perhaps none captures the beauty and mystery of the incarnation better than R.S. Thomas.
Thomas (1913–2000) was a priest in the Church in Wales. He served various rural parishes over the course of a lengthy career, most notably those of Manafon, Eglwysfach and Aberdaron. Recognized as one of the leading poets of modern Wales and one of the finest religious poets in the English language, he published some 25 individual collections of poems, as well as several volumes of prose.
This Advent, I am observing the season with the help of Carys Walsh’s delightful book, “Frequencies of God: Walking through Advent with R.S. Thomas” (Canterbury Press).
Walsh, curate at All Saints Kettering and previously a tutor in Christian Spirituality at St. Mellitus College, London, offers 28 reflections on Thomas’s poetry organized according to themes to be explored each week of Advent: waiting, accepting, journeying, and birthing. To this sequence she adds ‘seeing’ to provide focus for a final week of reflections beyond Advent.
Walsh notes, “Thomas’s poems for the final week of seeing take us into the Christmas season and towards Epiphany, and offer a new, fresh glimpse of our world as a place of God’s presence, even in apparent absence; even in desolation.”
“Frequencies of God” is a rich and rewarding introduction to the religious poetry of R.S. Thomas and a welcome devotional for moving through Advent and into Christmastide.
The way Thomas alludes to the wise men as “three waves from afar” who kneel in their own way, “offering their gifts to what they don’t understand” sticks with me this season. This striking image suggests we are capable of embracing the truth of the incarnation, even as we are limited in our ability to understand it. To paraphrase Saint Anselm, faith seeks understanding on the way to Bethlehem and beyond.
One piece of Thomas’s prose that Walsh does not include in her book, but that I have found myself returning to time and again this Advent, is from “The Echoes Return Slow,” an autobiographical sequence of verse and prose, each reflecting and illuminating the other, tracing Thomas’s experience growing up in Wales, of marriage and parenthood, and of his own development as a poet. Thomas writes:
Town Christmases, country ones, sea Christmases are all transcended, perhaps, in nativities of the spirit. If one cannot have the lights and festivities of the town, one can celebrate the coming of three waves from afar, who fall down, offering their gifts to what they don’t understand.
I love the imagery of “nativities of the spirit,” a phrase that echoes “laboratories of the spirit” which turns up elsewhere in Thomas’s poetry, perhaps most prominently in his earlier book of the same name and at the close of the poem, “Emerging,” with which that collection begins:
Circular as our way is, it leads not back to that snake-haunted garden, but onward to the tall city of glass that is the laboratory of the spirit.
It is the way Thomas alludes to the wise men as “three waves from afar” who kneel in their own way, “offering their gifts to what they don’t understand” that sticks with me this season. This striking image suggests we are capable of embracing the truth of the incarnation, even as we are limited in our ability to understand it. To paraphrase Saint Anselm, faith seeks understanding on the way to Bethlehem and beyond.
And when circumstances deny us the lights and festivities of the town, we can still celebrate the coming of three waves from afar. Like them, let us break upon the shore, offering our gifts to what we don’t understand.