A Note from the Rector – 6 September 2020
This week a came across an article (found here) from Plough, a print and online magazine that focuses on the intersection of Christian faith and culture. The article, written by Jeffrey Bilbro, is about the Anglo-Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas (1913-2000). Thomas was Anglican priest who served most of life in small parishes in rural Wales. I have had an affinity for R.S. Thomas since discovering him in seminary. The veteran pastor and writer, Eugene Peterson, wrote that preachers should and often do have an affinity with poets because it is the job of both to care for words.
The article is an excellent introduction to R.S. Thomas’ life and work. It includes quotations of several poems that I had never read and that seemed to be particularly appropriate for these times. The article argues that a major theme of Thomas’ work was the concept of turning aside, pausing in the present moment and truly paying to attention to reality as it is. Thomas used this as a strategy to deal with the ravages of a post-industrial society on Wales in the mid-20th century. He writes a lot about “the machine” to represent the cold and inhuman ways technology (especially that connected to industrial farming & mining) had disrupted and destroyed the lives of his parishioners, not to mention the beauty of their home, even while most were too poor to benefit from the modern conveniences that technology affords. So, here’s one quotation from a poem that caught my attention along with the way the article introduces it:
“In ‘Lore,’ Thomas encourages his readers find creative ways of living well amid a broken world.
What to do? Stay green.
Never mind the machine,
Whose fuel is human souls.
Live large, man, and dream small.
Notwithstanding the non-inclusive gender signifiers, that last line of the poem seems like awfully good advice for us who—five months into a pandemic—find that our lives are drastically different and seem to be shrunk in some way, a smaller vestige of the life we formerly enjoyed. How do we live well amid a broken world? We live large. That is, we live with hearts open wide to each other despite the circumstances. The opposite, to live small and dream big, represents the temptation felt by everyone to let our ambitions (big dreams) control us to the point that the character of our lives is small, petty, and closed off from true relationships.
We must not become petrified by the difficulties and incalculable loss we feel; not that we deny or run away from reality either. Instead, we dream small dreams of peace and mercy and care where ever and how ever we find ourselves. This, of course, isn’t easy. Poetry and other ways of paying attention and connecting us to faith can help. As Thomas wrote in another poem, “The Small Country:”
on this shrinking planet favours the survival
of the small people, whose horizons
are large only because they are content to look at them
from their own hills.
I grow old,
bending to enter the promised
land that was here all the time.
The point that I see Thomas making in these and other poems is that “small lives,” those which society deems insignificant, of no value, redundant, or inefficient are in fact of infinite value and worth. Small acts of care and beauty are the most important. In fact, they are the only sorts of acts that are available to us. As the Jeffrey Bilbro writes, “Perhaps the backwards nobodies from nowhere are, in fact, somebodies, particularly when they look for ways to quietly repair the rents of history with their hands. These are the true patriots, the people who faithfully love their small corner of the world.”