R. S. Thomas, “The Absence”

Today, instead of opening a book at random, or even flipping through to find a poem that strikes my interest, I turn to one of my favorite poems. R. S. Thomas was apparently quite the character, a grouchy parish priest in a hardscrabble Welsh village; his love for his country and fellow citizens was so fierce that one can see in a lot of his regional poetry why that emotion can sometimes be confused with its opposite.

This is the first poem of his I ever read — or rather, heard, since it was read to me in a seminar a few years back — and it has stayed with me ever since, earmarked inside Thomas’ Collected Poems, 1945-1990 on my bedside table.

The Absence

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism

of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resource have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

R. S. Thomas

The other day someone said to me, “I don’t think faith and reason are incompatible, I think they are both equally valid.” As I nodded politely, I thought: Really? Or is this just evidence of the compartmentalization we all do in this modern age, segregating spiritual and scientific into their own spheres?

We say, faith and reason are surely compatible, because look, they reference different things, they are useful in different ways! But this reduces faith to a frame of reference, a utilitarian tool, something that “comes in handy” when you need solace or comfort, or a way to explain away the unexplainable, or an ancient and mysterious ritual to zhush up your boring life, or an excuse to get together with similar people and do “good deeds” for the needy. For all of the actual business of daily living, let’s face it, what we call “faith” doesn’t come into play.

True faith starts when we realize that God is not here for us at certain times or to fulfill certain needs. In fact, God is never going to make himself known at all; he’s never going to act in a way that can’t be explained by some other means.

Seek solace, get silence.

And yet we still recognize that there is an emptiness within us, Pascal’s God-shaped hole, that demands God’s existence, and is quite literally the only thing we can offer him.

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