image from,+House

Carnsore Point, Co. Wexford, Ireland. September 20th, 2009.


A poem by R.S. Thomas:


The Place

Summer is here.
Once more the house has its
Spray of martins, Proust’s fountain
Of small birds, whose light shadows
Come and go in the sunshine
Of the lawn as thoughts do
In the mind. Watching them fly
Is my business, not as a man vowed
To science, who counts their returns
To the rafters, or sifts their droppings
For facts, recording the wave-length
Of their screaming; my method is so
To have them about myself
Through the hours of this brief
Season and to fill with their
Movement, that it is I they build
In and bring up their young
To return to after the bitter
Migrations, knowing the site
Inviolate through its outward changes.


R.S. Thomas, included in R. S. Thomas, Collected Poems: 1945-1990

This wonderful poem speaks for itself. The following is not a commentary on the poem as a poem, but an opening out of its theme.

The heart of it is the thought:

“so to have them about myself
… that it is I they build
in and bring up their young
to return to …”

It seems to me that this is a profound, beautiful and highly important part of what it is to be a person. If anyone does not know what the poet is here talking about; if anyone does not know what it is to allow other creatures to “build in” oneself, in ones very  identity, then such a person has not yet learned the full lesson of how to be alive.

The type of attention which the poet  is writing about is a sympathetic, thoughtful attention, but not one that is so full of thought that that very thought prevents the other (here, the birds) from entering into and shaping your identity in freedom. This is the freedom that allows the birds to be what they are when they shape you, not what you might think they are. This type of observation is something other than gathering data, but it is a form of reception. It is a paying attention that is sympathetic, and while it can do little to ease the bitterness of the long migrations the martins must undergo, it offers them a larger home than any they are immediately aware of: the home in a human heart permanently affected by their comings and goings.

This is not an “alternative science”, nor an alternative to science. By the former I mean that it is not  a different way of learning that gets to the same goal as science does (the goal of understanding the mechanisms and connections). Nor is it an alternative to science, as if we didn’t need science. Nor is it alien to science, because science also involves and invokes sympathetic interest in the object of ones study, and not a little awe. But it is not quite science, because it holds back from analysis in order to allow space for the other.

Rather, it is an accompaniment or partner to science. It is another form of behaviour that we have to learn if we want to grow into the fullness of who we can be. Most people find that this sort of receptivity comes fairly readily in the context of nature. We just need to give each other some encouragement that this is a valid thing to be doing.

Bad religion hijacks this humble and beautiful activity and attaches it to a muddled concoction of doctrines and controls; good religion embraces this humble and beautiful activity for a better purpose. This is the purpose of reconnection. Reconnection to reality in all the fullness that reality has. And this is a fullness that meets us. That is our experience. It is the experience of being met with, and it is an experience in which we are liberated because we can both complain and give thanks. We can say everything we have it in our heart to say. But we are not in charge. That is why this is not about a grand “It” or a grand process. And this meeting often finishes in stepping into a type of silence that is more completely nourishing than our attempts at verbalizing.

I already commented in earlier posts on the difference between bad religion and good religion; see for example “religion and reconnection” and “science, religion and tribalism“.  This present post is trying to offer some encouragement to readers already on the journey, and also trying to hold out a hand to those who are looking in and wondering if all this talk of God can mean anything. A long-discussed idea in Christian thought is that the whole of the transient natural world, humans included, is going to turn out to have been part of something that is not transient. This is not to say that transience itself is bad or wrong, but simply that the truth of our lives might be something like the truth of the lives of the martins observed and received by R. S.  Thomas. The larger reality of the cosmos is like someone Who graciously opens out their identity and being to us and to all the world, in such a way that we can build there, and bring up our young to return there after our bitter migrations.